The other night, some close friends of mine were smoking a marijuana joint outside of a bar. A plainclothes bouncer outside tipped off another bouncer inside and my friends were informed that the bar has a strict anti-drug policy. They weren't allowed back inside to finish their drinks.
All of this is a bit surprising. These days, it's common in Western Canada to see folks smoking joints outside pubs and clubs with the cigarette smokers. And an establishment promoting and selling liquor is hardly anti-drug.
But ultimately my friends were breaching the current law of the land, and any establishment has the right to enforce their own policies. Still, my friends felt they weren't doing anything wrong. As a social libertarian, I can understand their frustration. I don't believe it should be the government's job to protect people from themselves, especially when they aren't hurting anyone else.
I'm not alone.
As Prime Minister Jean Chretien was leaving government in 2003, he tabled two legacy initiatives. The first was to legalize gay marriage and the second was to decriminalize marijuana. This helped to create a climate where Canada's marijuana laws became confusing and ambiguous to many Canadian citizens. The government was leaving the smokers alone, while still targeting growers and dealers. The Harper government wiped out the decrim initiative in 2006, shortly after being elected. Recently the Harper government announced increased spending and involvement with the war on drugs. This is a poor strategy and ultimately an attack on Canadian sovereignty.
Let's take a walk down memory lane!
In Nov. 2003, Canada's Attorney General and Justice Minister Martin Cauchon spoke on this issue for Bill C-38 and the Special Committee on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs:
"Clearly, our law is not in step with Canadian reality," said Cauchon. "This begs the question: does it make sense to threaten a young person with jail or the lasting burden of a criminal conviction if they make a bad choice? I think most people would agree the answer is no."
This was a strong statement, but also a bit of a contradiction. As he mentions later, a 2002 non-partisan senate committee recommended full legalization immediately. And they were very serious!
"Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public health issue," said senator and commitee chair Pierre Nolin in an interview with CTV.
Stephen Harper, then the leader of the Canadian Alliance, didn't like the senate's report.
"As a parent, I would be more concerned about pot use than alcohol use by my children, even in moderation," said Harper at the time.
Think of the children! Clearly a full-scale study done by respected and senior Canadian politicians wasn't convincing enough for Mr. Harper.
It wasn't only the members of the government elite who felt legalization should happen. In a surprising 2004 report, an economist with the Fraser Institute (a Canadian right-wing think tank that prides itself on market solutions for public policy) voiced his support, arguing that legalizing marijuana could add $2 billion a year in tax revenues and remove a source of funding to organized crime.
"If we treat marijuana like any other commodity, we can tax it, regulate it, and use the resources the industry generates rather than continue a war against consumption and production that has long since been lost," said Easton in a Jun. 10 CBC article. Easton estimated the British Columbia marijuana industry is worth $7 billion.
He's right. The only ones who benefit from the war on drugs are criminal gangs that don't have to regulate their product to be safe and can maintain a monopoly on supply and prices. This creates a conflict over market share and funds other malevolent criminal endeavors. If customers are harmed, they have little recourse since they themselves were breaking the law. Right now the system allows the black market to thrive and the consumer and civil society to be abused.
While cannabis is consumed the world over, it's an issue especially relevant to Canadians. The 2007 United Nations World Drug Report stated that Canadians are four times more likely to have smoked pot in the past year than residents of nearly every other country. According to the study, 16.8 per cent of Canadians aged 15 to 64 smoked marijuana or used another cannabis product in 2006. The world average is 3.8 per cent.
In the report, Canada ranks fifth in the world for marijuana use, behind Ghana at 21.5 per cent, Zambia, 17.7 per cent, and Papua New Guinea and Micronesia with 29 per cent each.
This created quite a stir in the national media. The Globe and Mail and National Post both wrote articles in support of decriminalization shortly after.
So with public, political, economic and intellectual opinion clearly in favour of full marijuana legalization, what's the holdup?
Ultimately, I believe it comes down to the United States and their war on drugs. They have long been strong opponents of marijuana. In fact, they convinced the UN it should be illegal via Harry J. Anslinger's hysteria and blatantly racist campaigns against Mexican immigrants. See The 1937 Marihuana Tax Act and the UN's single Convention on Narcotic Drugs for good examples. Furthermore, the U.S. has been trying to get B.C. Marijuana Party leader Marc Emery extradited for selling seeds for the last couple of years. And in recent years the U.S. has also sent their drug czar John Walters on speaking tours across the country, amid protest, to state their distaste with Canada's marijuana attitude. He's been quoted as as saying marijuana growers are violent criminal terrorists. And there have been threats of locking down the border, which would hamper trade, and therefore our economy.
For a serious assessment of that threat, Parliament released Canada's Proposed Decriminalization of Marijuana: International Implications and Views in 2004. At that time they established the border issue may not even be a concern due to the ambivalence of Bush administration during a visit that year.
This was before the Harper government came to power, however. Regarding trade, a border lockdown would affect everyone adversely. Especially when Canadian resources are in high demand. So, while a majority of Canadian citizens want marijuana to be a legal and an accepted part of society, their views take a backseat to ignorance and fear from across the border. This has ultimately become a sovereignty issue. Will Canadians sit back and let our public policy be dictated?
If the current Canadian government has any say, the answer is an emphatic "yes." The Oct. 7, 2007 issue of the New York Times reported new legal and spending measures against drug use and distribution announced by the Harper government Thu., Oct. 4.
"Far too long now in Canada, governments have been sending out mixed messages on drugs," said Harper. "Canadians hardly know what the law is anymore."
Harper went on to discuss his proposed measures, including $64 million in increased funding for antidrug advertising and enforcement, as well as mandatory sentences for dealers and smugglers. He also included the ominous promise of more co-operation with the U.S.
With this crackdown, Canadian pot smokers will remain second-class citizens and have to keep a widely accepted, mostly harmless personal habit behind closed doors. Good people will be saddled with criminal records and all Canadian tax payers will continue to fund and promote a failing and dishonest drug strategy. If you're left with a bad taste in your mouth after reading all this, then welcome to the club!
So, what can we do? A referendum won't be coming any time soon, but the next best thing is to contact your local elected official and voice your concerns. Support politicians that will act on behalf of Canadian interests instead of American ones. It's important to note that while some members of the federal Liberal and Conservative parties support decriminalization, the Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and NDP all have it as part of their policy platforms.
It's my view that Canada should act as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world on what a liberated, compassionate and free society can look like and marijuana legalization fits into the scheme of things. With the research already in, how long will we wait until we have a government that acts on the fundamentals of truth and justice? And ultimately, that stands up for Canadian sovereignty?
In closing, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia said it best in 1944 as he worked to reverse a different form of prohibition:
"Prohibition cannot be enforced for the simple reason that the majority of American people do not want it enforced and are resisting its enforcement. That being so, the orderly thing to do under our form of government is to abolish a law which cannot be enforced, a law which the people of the country do not want enforced."