In November 2001, Kash Heed stood before the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs and outlined why his police department had essentially stopped arresting people for marijuana possession.
“It was de facto decriminalization,” the retired commanding officer of the Vancouver police drug squad told the Straight. “I took a lot of heat from the RCMP for doing that.”
Published in September 2002, the committee’s final report is a serious document more than 800 pages long.
“In our opinion, Canadian society is ready for a responsible policy of cannabis regulation,” it concludes. “A regulatory system for cannabis should permit, specifically: more effective targeting of illegal traffic and a reduction in the role played by organized crime.”
Thirteen years later, the committee’s recommendations remain ignored and the report is all but forgotten.
As for Heed, who also served as B.C. solicitor general, he said he’s come to see problems with the position he took back then in favour of decriminalization; mainly, that it doesn’t go far enough.
Heed explained decriminalization would put an end to police busting people for smoking a joint. But he quickly added the illegal supply of marijuana would remain unaddressed.
“We’ll continue to have the murders, the kidnappings, the home invasions,” he said. “All of the violence that’s related to that black market will continue.”
“Decriminalization will do nothing to deal with that aspect of it,” Heed concluded. “Decriminalization is good business for organized crime.”
Ahead of this October’s federal election, two out of three leading political parties have pledged to reform laws concerning the prohibition of recreational marijuana. The New Democrats’ Thomas Mulcair has promised to pursue that policy criticized by Heed, arguing decriminalization is the best first step for marijuana reform and one that can occur while the issue receives further study. Meanwhile, the Liberal party led by Justin Trudeau has said it wants to fully legalize and regulate the drug.
In separate interviews, a number of prominent advocates for marijuana reform told the Straight they have nearly as many concerns about decriminalization as they do about the current system of prohibition.
While some aspects of decriminalization are similar to legalization, activists called attention to the most obvious difference between the two: the space it leaves for organized crime and the violence that follows.
Jodie Emery was an early supporter of Trudeau’s plan to legalize cannabis. She explained the NDP's version of decriminalization only pertains to the demand side of illicit marijuana sales, leaving the supply side as it exists today. On the other hand, Emery explained, legalization would likely involve a regulatory system that would institutionalize the production and sale of cannabis similar to Canada’s existing systems for tobacco.
“The NDP’s decision to just look at reforming policy—to have another long investigation or discussion about reforming the laws—means that the criminal control of the market will remain in place, that gang violence will not be addressed in Surrey or anywhere as long as marijuana remains illegal,” Emery said.
John Anderson, a former B.C. Corrections officer and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, described decriminalization as “a victory for organized crime”.
Dan Werb, director of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, explained the changes legalization would bring that decriminalization would not.
“In the case of B.C., we estimated that over $500 million in retail sales is going into the hands of organized crime every year,” Werb said. “If you remove that market, it is the most effective way of kneecapping organized crime and reducing the power of organized crime.”
Even the RMCP—a conservative organization that generally avoids even the appearance of disagreements with Ottawa—may be warming to the idea of reform.
In a telephone interview, Cpl. Scotty Schumann, a media relations officer for Surrey RCMP, confirmed drugs have played a “primary role” in a spate of more than three dozen shootings that have occurred in Surrey since last spring.
Asked how the legalization of marijuana could affect gang violence, Schumann replied: “I suspect that if marijuana was legalized, that would reduce the amount of black market activity surrounding marijuana. I would just be speculating on how that would affect the outcome. But I guess when you look back to alcohol prohibition, certainly, when that was removed, I think it benefited the country.”
There are few jurisdictions comparable to B.C that have legalized marijuana. One is Colorado, where recreational cannabis became legal on January 1, 2014. According to numbers published by the city, from 2013 to 2014, robberies in Denver declined 3.3 percent, aggravated assault increased 1.2 percent, and homicides dropped 24.4 percent.
The Colorado experiment is still in its early days. There is however substantial research that shows existing police enforcement policies have little overall positive influence on violence related to drug dealing.
For example, a 2011 paper authored by academics with UBC and the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS reviewed 15 studies that examined law-enforcement agencies’ effects on gang violence. It found that 14 of them recorded an “adverse impact” and 10 showed a “significant association between drug law enforcement and drug market violence”.
That is, police enforcement of drug laws did not reduce violence but actually led to increased numbers of incidents.
Holding front seats for the violence Surrey has experienced this year are Sukh Dhaliwal, the Liberal candidate for Surrey-Newton, and his NDP incumbent rival, Jinny Sims.
In a telephone interview, Dhaliwal noted he’s historically voted in favour of tough-on-crime legislation. But he argued where marijuana is concerned, it is time for change.
“Every parent is concerned about this gang activity and this gang war going on right now,” he said. “One way we can work to ending this war is to take that criminal element out. And this evidence-based policy—legalizing marijuana—will get that element out. And decriminalization, as the NDP is saying, would keep that factor in.”
Dhaliwal called it a “smart on crime” approach.
In a separate interview, Sims didn’t disagree with the Liberals' plan in principle. She criticized its potential execution.
“Nobody denies—except for maybe the Conservatives—that our marijuana laws need to be modernized,” Sims said. “But we need to base our decisions on evidence and public health principles.
“It’s not a simple matter of just coming out one day and saying, ‘We’re going to legalize marijuana’,” she continued. “That could lead to major transition problems.”
Neil Boyd, director of the SFU school of criminology, cautioned legalization won’t automatically translate into the evaporation of B.C.’s illegal marijuana trade.
“Regulation isn’t going to be easy,” he said. “How are you going to get rid of the black market? You have to set the price carefully.”
(A 38-page Liberal party policy document acknowledges those types of concerns. “To be successful and prevent organized crime from maintaining a black market, the price of legal marijuana must be lower than it is now,” it reads. “At the same time, the product’s quality must be at least as good – if not better.”)
Boyd said that while the NDP’s plan fails to address the problem of organized crime, the Liberals have yet to explain the details of their plan.
“Decriminalization, to many people, seems a safer approach,” he said. “I think that is mistaken. But I understand the logic. There is a fear that with legalization, we’ll have promotion.”
Boyd suggested it is unlikely legalization would ever take the form of unfettered distribution for marijuana as if it were a harmless product like milk or eggs. He argued Canada should follow examples for how it regulates controlled substances such as tobacco and alcohol.
“We’ll want to regulate it in the public interest,” he said.
This article is part of a series.
Part one: Liberals and NDP promise marijuana reform but pot crimes could still haunt Canadians for decades
Part two: Decriminalization versus legalization: marijuana advocates scrutinize competing plans for reform
Part three: Marijuana advocates warn NDP plans for decriminalization would leave organized crime in control