In 2002, courts across Canada registered 93,000 drug-related convictions. Seventy-five per cent involved marijuana, and of those 75 per cent were for simple possession. More than half of the possession convictions led only to fines. The number of police-reported drug crimes has risen by 42 per cent in the past 10 years, and have now reached 20-year highs.
We can only imagine how much police and court time have been dedicated to the investigation and prosecution of the possession charges that led to the fines, but it’s hard to imagine it was worth it all. The federal government of the day seems to agree, and is promising to reform the laws that restrict marijuana use.
In the coming weeks, Parliament will debate legislation that will decriminalize possession of marijuana under 15 grams - enough for 15 to 20 joints. That means anyone found in possession of that amount will be handed a ticket and a fine that could be paid without a court appearance - like a speeding ticket.
The goal of the legislative changes, which would effectively take marijuana possession out of the criminal code, will be to get these charges out of the courts. With the courts, and the police, freed of the burden of simple possession infractions, both would presumably free up the resources to deal with more important matters.
Police services, which are leading the charge on the war against drugs in Canada, are against relaxing the punishment for possession. Police argue marijuana is a stepping stone to the use of other more serious drugs, and is part of a much larger web of crime - theft, assault and gun-related crimes - they have to contend with.
What police don’t say is that the threat of laying charges against marijuana users is a key component in the intelligence gathering used in the investigation of distributors and growers. Unless police can lean on the teenager caught with a few joints at a rock concert, they’ll never be able to crack down on the distribution network that supplied that kid.
Instead of relaxing the laws, police argue Canada’s drug laws should be strengthened, and police should be given more tools to combat the proliferation of drugs. In some cases, such as tools to crack down on stoned drivers, their concerns should be heeded.
That’s not reason enough to continue to wage a losing war on recreational marijuana use, however. Recreational marijuana use is commonplace in Canadian society, across many age groups. A 1996 Senate review on marijuana laws concluded - it thought conservatively - that as many as three million Canadians are recreational tokers. Canadian laws, as written and as defended by police, would make criminals out of all of them.
That is exactly what the government of the day doesn’t want. Laws exist to serve society, not to shape it. If many otherwise law-abiding Canadians want to smoke dope on occasion, without infringing on the rights of anybody else, the laws of the land should accommodate it.
Indeed, the same Senate committee recommended that recreational marijuana use should be legalized rather than merely decriminalized. That is where other countries are headed as they reform their laws, and may even be where Canada is heading.
Alcohol was once prohibited like marijuana is today, and now booze is sold in shopping malls. It’s time to admit that no amount of law enforcement can stem the tide of recreational marijuana use in Canada, and that it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money to try.