COVER STORY: High time for a marijuana debate?
If you talk to police, politicians and school trustees on the North Shore, it’s tough to find those who don’t support some kind of marijuana reform. And even the few not openly in favour of legalizing the drug will admit our war on drugs is over and lost.
The Outlook took a poll last week asking every North Shore politician — municipal, provincial and federal — on which side of the legalization debate they fell.
Every respondent from the three municipal councils came down in favour of relaxing Canada’s marijuana laws, with the exception of one, who chose to remain “on the fence.”
Among the North Shore’s four BC Liberal MLAs, Joan McIntyre went on-record with her support for legalization and taxation, while Ralph Sultan opted not to “speculate” on the “decriminalization of drugs.” North Vancouver MLAs Naomi Yamamoto and Jane Thornthwaite did not return The Outlook’s query.
As for the North Shore’s two Conservative MPs, West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country representative John Weston replied, saying, “I am very keen to hear what the community has to say about the issue of marijuana and medical marijuana," adding “it is an issue that is more and more relevant on the North Shore.”
North Vancouver MP Andrew Saxton, however, would not provide comment on the issue.
But it seems a majority of North Shore residents and British Columbians are ready to have the “decrim” discussion.
A poll last October found that 75 per cent of B.C. residents support the legal taxation and regulation of cannabis over our current enforcement model. It marked a six-percentage-point jump over just one year before and indicated a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo on cannabis policy, according to Angus Reid Public Opinion vice-president Mario Canseco.
“These beliefs cut across political, social and regional lines,” Canseco said at the poll’s release. “I can’t think of any other issue where the laws on the books are inconsistent with the wishes of three-quarters of British Columbians.”
Now picture this: A neighbourhood pilot project. Maybe it’s Edgemont Village, maybe it’s Ambleside, but more likely it’s East Vancouver. One or two local cafes or a liquor store are licensed to sell marijuana to of-age customers who ask for it. Police put a moratorium on busting marijuana use in the neighbourhood while politicians and the public wait for the sky to fall in.
That’s one proposal raised by a panel of marijuana reformers speaking across the North Shore last week, which included a former West Vancouver police chief and B.C. Solicitor General, a UBC epidemiologist, a former B.C. attorney general and a UBC international trade expert.
Among their audiences were police, politicians, teachers, doctors, firefighters, and representatives from the North Shore’s school boards and chambers of commerce. And while peer pressure is no small factor, none in attendance spoke against reform.
The arguments presented for removing cannabis from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and then regulating it like alcohol and tobacco were as many and varied as the speakers who gave them. Defunding organized crime, generating tax revenue, reducing pot’s availability to minors, allowing for its therapeutic benefits; all are compelling reasons to explore reform.
But perhaps none are more compelling than the fact that legalized regulation appears to be what most people want and, what’s more, it’s already how most British Columbians behave.
“That’s the reality of today’s society,” West Vancouver Police Chief Peter Lepine told The Outlook last week. “If we’re going to recruit police officers from mainstream society, then we know that the likelihood of somebody having experimented with drugs is a likelihood.”
In North Van, RCMP spokesman Cpl. Richard De Jong told The Outlook following one such panel that he “couldn’t really argue with” much of what he heard from the pro-reform side, but that he felt the rest was “up for further discussion.”
He stressed, for instance, that waging economic war on organized crime by hitting B.C. gangs in their deep dope pockets is obviously a worthy incentive for those calling for reform. But those who routinely call on the Mounties to make it so are barking up the wrong tree.
“In terms of these movements that happen at the grassroots level, be it in the city, the district or provincial, there’s really not much we as the police can do,” De Jong said, “We don’t have any greater say than anybody else because it’s governed by federal law.”
How then do those sworn to uphold the law do so knowing that a majority of the public — and maybe even they too — disagree with it?
It’s a question former B.C. attorney general Geoff Plant and former West Vancouver police chief Kash Heed have grappled with. When the majority of citizens are opposed to the law — even just to one law — it undermines the whole rule of law, they argued.
“When nearly 500,000 of your fellow citizens are admitting to pollsters that on a regular basis they are breaking the law, what does that say for our respect for the law?” asked Plant. “It says something pretty bad. It says that we’re all kind of living in an uneasy dynamic relationship with the very thing that, I think, is most fundamental to our society.”
Former West Van top cop Kash Heed agrees, saying in his 30 years of policing with the VPD and later the WVPD, no amount of seizures or arrests could ever stem the supply of the drug nor alter its price, availability or use.
“The drug dealers are regulating drug use right now, not us,” Heed told The Outlook in a phone interview last week. Were it regulated instead by the government, he argued, controls could be in place to ensure the drug’s purity and potency, while its availability to minors would be restricted.
For West Vancouver Superintendent of Schools Chris Kennedy, he’d like to see pot use in young people handled the same way cigarette smoking has been, by reducing the habit’s cool cache.
“I would love to see some of the perceptions around marijuana use marginalized like it is for tobacco,” he told The Outlook last week. “Wherever we land on legalization and regulation, I hope we can do what we did with tobacco with young people and make it seem uncool, because obviously it can impede kids’ learning.”
Until that discussion happens, he said, the focus of drug education in West Van schools is and will remain on discussions around the dangers of alcohol. “That’s still our primary concern with kids,” he said.
So why, with so many British Columbians seemingly in support of a change, is it so tough to get a national discussion going?
Many openly blame the federal government, including many local municipal politicians. But while it’s true that marijuana reform runs counter to the current government’s tough-on-crime rhetoric, it may just be that where the provinces and municipalities are seen to have much to gain from marijuana reform, the federal government stands to gain little.
“The tax revenue that could come from a policy change would be on the provincial side and municipal side,” said UBC economist Werner Antweiler, adding “the savings for the federal government would be very, very small.”
Policing, for instance, is largely a municipal affair, with significant department resources in British Columbia dedicated to things like marijuana grow-op investigations, which can be lengthy, expensive and dangerous to officers.
Health care too is another avenue where the provinces could reap substantial rewards through the use of tax revenue from marijuana sales in the healthcare system, Antweiler said.
“The pressure on the federal government to do something is a lot less than on the provincial government,” he added. “So there’s a bit of a dilemma to get the argument carried forward to the federal government, which is the only government that can make the change.”