Drew McLachlan
Associate Editor
The Navigator

Drew_head_webIn August of this year, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) put forward a proposal to the federal government. The idea is to give the RCMP the power to hand out tickets, with fines determined by the government, to anyone caught with small amounts of marijuana. Current laws require officers to make an arrest in order to pursue a charge, costing the officer time, the justice system money, and leaving a permanent mark on the individual’s criminal record. The Prime Minister has stated that he is looking “very closely” at this proposal, but not everybody is celebrating.

Dana Larsen, director of the Sensible B.C. campaign for a marijuana referendum, wrote an editorial for the Huffington Post in which he urged reader’s “not to be fooled by the Police Chief’s recent pot proposal.” Larsen wrote the new ticketing power would only be added on top of the current ones, and officers would use the opportunity to ticket the 80% of smokers who do not get charged, while the number of arrests would not likely drop. Whether you see the proposed policy as a step forward, or agree with Larsen that it is a step back, Canada is still miles behind other parts of the world in terms of drug law reform.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’re a VIU student. And if you’re a VIU student, I’m going to assume you’ve heard several students and at least one instructor talk about how ineffective the war on drugs is. With that in mind, several countries have decided to count their losses and laid down their arms. The most notable of these nations is Portugal, which made its peace with drugs in 2001.

In Portugal, smokers don’t have to worry about being arrested, nor being fined. Drug use, instead of being punished, is treated. Users are given over to the healthcare system instead of the judicial system so that addicts can be treated and recreational users can avoid being sent to prison where more serious problems can form. Although hash can be bought over the counter in many stores, marijuana use has actually declined, with only 6.6 % of 15 to 22 year olds in Portugal smoking pot, much lower than neighbouring Spain, which has a rate of 23.9 % in the same age group. In the United Kingdom, Mike Barton, one of “England’s most senior police officers,” according to The Guardian, has recently been urging Her Majesty’s Government to consider decriminalization as well, making special note of the financial hit street gangs would take from such a policy change.

While I’m personally in favour of seeing reform for all drug laws, I realize this remains a controversial subject in Canada. Disregarding other drugs, we are still lagging behind our neighbours in marijuana law reform. It’s been almost a year since our province’s favourite export was legalized in both Washington and Colorado states, yet Canadians are still being confined to their basements for smoking sessions.

So while the Conservative government is taking a “close look” at this new ticketing policy, which is essentially a baby-step towards decriminalization, the debate for real Canadians remains quite different. According to a Forum Research poll conducted last summer, 36 % of Canadians would like to see marijuana legalized, while 34 % preferred decriminalization, and only 15 % were pleased with our current laws. Clearly there is a disconnect between the House of Commons and the hearts of Canadians.

Although Stephen Harper stated that “very, very few leaders think that anything should be done other than fighting this particular scourge on our populations” in April 2012, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has stepped forth in favour of legalization, and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has stated he favours decriminalization. However confident Harper may be that politicians don’t care much for either option, Canadians do, and the choice is likely to have a result come the next federal election. Washington Initiative 502 on marijuana reform had a record voter turnout, so why would it be any different here?