Canada has been in a tizzy over marijuana for the last few years. The minority Liberal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin hopes to quiet the issue by reintroducing its "decriminalization" bill, which would make possession of small amounts (less than 30 grams) subject to fines instead of criminal sentences. Liberal parliamentarians announced earlier this year that the bill would be reintroduced.
But earlier versions of the decrim bill garnered only lukewarm support even from the Liberal Party, while angering old-line drug warriors who thought it was a cave-in to "the drug lobby" and drug reform activists who viewed it as too little too late. Now, a pair of incidents in the last month have raised more questions about just what a decrim bill would accomplish, while at the same time putting the issue squarely back on the Canadian political front burner.
Canadian drug trafficking law makes no distinctions based on drug quantities or on the particular drug involved. In theory, if not often in practice, persons who, like Marc Emery, merely shared a joint, can be charged as drug traffickers and sentenced to as much time as a major heroin or cocaine importer. The decriminalization bill being prepared by the Liberals does not redress this glaring problem.
If Emery's imprisonment, the daily protests outside the Saskatoon courthouse by his supporters, and the deluge of media coverage about it weren't enough, the pot issue received another huge round of publicity after Vancouver police raided a Commercial Drive shop for selling marijuana on September 9. Da Kine Food and Beverage shop (http://www.dakinesmoke.ca) had been open for four months, selling marijuana in a cannabis café setting reminiscent of Amsterdam. Vancouver police claim to have been aware of the business, but did not act to shut it down until CTV -- the Canadian equivalent of Fox News -- ran a "shocking expose" revealing the café's operations.
The publicity surrounding Da Kine has put Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell, an advocate of drug legalization, is an awkward position. While the clamor was growing in some quarters to crack down on the illicit business, Campbell had said the fact it existed was "no big deal." Campbell was forced to elaborate Sunday at a meeting across the street from Da Kine as customers continued to make their way into the café.
By staying open, Da Kine is "poking a stick at the police," Campbell said. "Certainly there is a big deal from the point of legality. It's illegal and there's nothing the city can do to change that. It's a federal law and this idea that we can pass a by-law that says coffee shops can sell marijuana is craziness. We can't do it, it's not a municipal responsibility. I support legalization of marijuana but at the same time that doesn't mean they get to flout the law until the law is changed," Campbell said. "My answer is you legalize it and tax the living hell out of it. And every bit of the tax should go straight to health care, not the general fund," the mayor added.
Marc Emery will get out of jail in a few weeks, and Da Kine will either be busted again or not, but with support for marijuana law reform strong and Canadian activists determined to push the envelope, what is clear is that the gap between social reality and the criminal law on marijuana is growing wider by the day.
"There is an increased divergence between what the law says and what actually happens," agreed Dana Larsen, editor of Cannabis Culture and a BC Marijuana Party leader. "These cafes will expand over time, just like in Amsterdam," he predicted. "There are already other places selling over the counter on Commercial Drive. We are really seeing the coffee shop movement develop before our eyes now here in Vancouver," he told DRCNet. "We already have a safe injection site for heroin users, and a safe inhalation site for crack smokers is in the works here," said Larsen. "Da Kine is a safe inhalation site for marijuana people."
The incidents with Marc Emery and Da Kine have roused the New Democrats (NDP), Canada's third national party, whose platform implicitly calls for the complete legalization of marijuana. "We are seeing huge legal problems with the lack of rational and just laws governing marijuana," said federal party head Jack Layton in a statement Monday.
Vancouver NDP Member of Parliament Libby Davies elaborated. "In light of Marc Emery's arrest last month for 'passing a joint' and the recent arrests on Commercial Drive, parliament needs to have a realistic discussion about the laws governing adult marijuana use," she said. "Many are likely not aware but sharing a joint is considered trafficking under our current federal laws," said Davies. "I had an amendment when parliament considered changes to the marijuana laws last fall which would have stricken this from the books, but the Liberal-dominated committee voted it down. These sorts of situations are going to continue if Paul Martin and the federal government refuse to face the issue, and as a result lives are ruined because of criminal convictions and communities and local business are unfairly affected by police raids," said Davies, whose district includes Da Kine.
"We are making it clear that we think this legislation needs to be dealt with urgently and it needs to be changed," Davies told DRCNet. "We will work to amend the bill and make it more realistic, but even so, we see the decrim bill as only a first step; we want to go far beyond that," she said. "This year we will try again, and we will try to win support from the Bloc Quebecois [while only a regional party, the Bloc has the third largest number of seats in parliament; the NDP is fourth] and negotiate with the Liberals."
If the renascent marijuana controversy has roused the NDP, it has also roused the Conservative opposition. "The Liberal decriminalization bill is a waste of time," said Member of Parliament Randy White, the Conservative drug policy critic. "It will not satisfy either those who want legalization or those who want abstinence," he told DRCNet. The Conservatives will not support the Liberal decrim bill unless it is part of a larger national drug strategy, White said.
"We need a national drug strategy. You may not like the American strategy, but at least they have one," White said. "We should have done this 12 or 15 years ago. Now we have a situation where anything goes, from arresting someone with one joint to giving no punishment for someone with 40 joints. This is a result of not having a drug policy."
Most Canadian marijuana activists consider White a Neanderthal on the issue, but White, too, sounded like he was being swept by the same tides sweeping the country. "I am open to looking at cannabis policy," White said, "and my position has changed. Once upon a time, I believed in total abstinence for everything. I still believe in abstinence, but I am no longer naïve enough to believe that is possible. Let's talk about marijuana, but let's do it in the context of a national drug strategy. I'm not prepared to talk about decriminalization if we are going to be ignoring crystal meth labs."
Dana Larsen and Randy White don't have much in common other than being Canadian, but one thing they do share is the prediction that the Liberal decrim bill will die a lonely, neglected death. "I don't expect it to pass," said Larsen. "It's contentious, and the Liberals are famous for not dealing with issues like that. But we are approaching the end game," he contended.
While continued public support for marijuana prohibition may be waning and even waning rapidly, it is unclear what will happen next. The Canadian Supreme Court last year had an opportunity to throw out the marijuana law, but declined. That leaves parliament. But with the Liberals offering up only a weak bill that pleases no one, a parliamentary exit appears a long way off. The other option is for Canadian authorities to follow the Dutch model and allow for the regulated sale and consumption of cannabis. But, as was evident in Vancouver this week, that will only fly as long as authorities are allowed to ignore the fumes wafting up from Commercial Drive -- or until Canadian officials make ignoring the pot laws official policy.
Meanwhile, Marc Emery is about halfway through his jail sentence. And while Saskatoon authorities can lock him up, they haven't been able to shut him up. Emery posts regularly to a blog on the BC Marijuana Party web site and even addressed a Saskatoon rally in his support via telephone. We are seeking an interview for next week's issue of Drug War Chronicle.
In the meantime, if you want to support Marc Emery, send him a postcard at: Marc Emery, c/o Saskatoon Correctional Centre, 910 60th Street, East Saskatoon S7K 2H6, CANADA.