While it "stands firm in opposing any type of legalization of any and all currently illicit drugs in Canada," the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) announced its support for the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana and the medicalization of all illegal drugs. Such was the curious admixture of conservative rhetoric and progressive policy recommendations in "Drug Policy 1999," a report released last week by the group.
Brockville, Ontario police chief Barry King, who chairs the CACP's drug abuse committee, explained. "Over the years, there have been a lot of definitions used and interchanged, and in an improper sense in many cases, from decriminalization to harm reduction to legalization to medicalization," he told the Week Online. "What we wanted to do as the Chiefs of Police was to have a foundation for the partners we deal with -- we deal with Health Canada, with Justice, which writes the laws, we deal with addiction research centers, and police -- so we decided to come up with our definition, to put it on the table so that we have a foundation we can all talk from."
One of the reasons the CACP opposes legalization, even for small amounts of marijuana, King said, is because the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs precludes such a move. Instead, the CACP wants the existing penalty for possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana changed from a summary conviction, which is similar to a misdemeanor but results in a criminal record, to a ticketable offense.
"Our intent was not to change the law, but to give police officers on the front line an option so that they may use discretion like in other investigations," King said. "They'd have the opportunity, depending on the circumstances to give a ticket. The person would have thirty days to pay the ticket and avoid a criminal record. If they failed to do that, then we would enact the same law we have now and apply the criminal charge."
King said the lighter penalties make sense for first time offenders. "There are a lot of people who experiment, and after a short period of time, or if they get caught, they quit. And that's our long term objective, is to get people off it," he said. "But what's happened of course is that under the existing law, even though it's a misdemeanor or summary conviction, it's a barrier to employment. We think there's a far better message given out, not that we're lightening up drugs at all, but that we spend more time on traffickers, distributors, on organized crime. It seems like a reasonable alternative in the '90s."
Last year, some 70,000 people were charged with drug offenses in Canada. 70 percent of those charges were marijuana-related, and 60 percent of those were for possession. "Every time a police officer has to go in and write up a report and dictate a Crown brief, that is time off the road. That's valuable time," King said. Court time and legal fees also add up.
King stressed that CACP's recommendations for decriminalization were made with the proviso that any changes in the law must be accompanied by an increase in spending on prevention, education, and treatment.
The report also clarifies CACP's position on the medical use of marijuana and other drugs. In response to Health Minister Alan Rock's announcement that Health Canada would conduct clinical trials on marijuana's medical use, a policy statement accompanying the report states, "The CACP fully supports it... We realize this is not the first step towards the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes."
"People say, 'why don't we legalize drugs for medical use?' We're saying, 'bad word.' Don't use 'legalization.' It's 'medicalization,'" King said. "We have morphine today, we have codeine, we have a number of other tranquilizers that are addictive but they have been authorized for medical use. We have no problem with that. Instead of trying to draw us into arguments over medical use of marijuana or heroin or cocaine, we're pointing out that Health Canada has a regulatory responsibility, an approval process, and a scientific based assessment. And if they determine that a given drug is beneficial, that's their responsibility. We're not doctors."
King said CACP's recommendations, which will be presented for approval by the full membership at an annual meeting this August, and then to the Ministries of Justice, Health, and the Solicitor General, and are just common sense. "We were not trying to be radical," he said. "We were not trying to reinvent anything."
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is online at http://www.cacp.org.