When James Roszko shot and killed four Royal Canadian Mounted Police at his rural Alberta farm last week, he may also have fatally wounded any prospects for that country to move beyond limited marijuana law reform. While the killings were originally played as a marijuana grow-op bust gone bad, that has turned out not to be the case, but in the intervening days, police and politicians alike used the incident to call for a crack-down on Canada's burgeoning marijuana growing industry, and the momentum toward tougher grow-up laws may now be irreversible.
The four Mounties were shot to death March 3 after they went to Roszko's remote farm to try to repossess a pick-up truck on which he had failed to make payments. They went to the farm the previous evening, and stayed there waiting for Roszko after they found stolen truck parts and a small, 20-plant marijuana grow. He found them instead, shot them dead, then turned his rifle on himself. According to Canadian press reports, Roszko was a dangerous loner with a love of guns and a hatred for police.
But those nuances were lost in the early reaction to the killings, the worst slaughter of Canadian police since the Northwest Rebellion 120 years ago. RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli used the killings to call grow ops "a major, serious threat to our society," in an emotional news conference the night of the killings.
Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan said it might be time to crack down on marijuana grows. She and Justice Minister Irwin Cotler will "want to take a look at whether we have the right resources being used in the right ways and whether we have the right laws."
Under current Canadian law, marijuana growers can face up to seven years in prison. But in reality, few are sentenced to prison. Under the government's pending decriminalization bill, penalties for grows would be doubled, with some growers facing up to 14 years in prison. Sentiment now appears strong to pass that portion of the legislation, or even strengthen it, though a backlash to the use of the Mounties' death to push an anti-marijuana position may be growing.
It was already apparent last weekend, as the ruling federal Liberal Party met for its annual convention. With two competing resolutions on marijuana on the agenda -- one calling for the weed's legalization and taxation and another calling for stiffer grow op penalties -- debate was heated in the emotional atmosphere after the killings. Some criticized those who used the killings to argue for a crackdown on marijuana grows. "I find it a shame that on the heels of this tragedy we have people calling for tougher sentences," said Boris St.-Maurice, founding member of the Canadian Marijuana Party who had recently joined the Liberals. "It is, sadly, a lack of respect, I think, towards those fallen officers to boil it all down to marijuana. By doing that, we're not serving their interests. We're missing the boat altogether."
That didn't stop Toronto-area Member of Parliament Jim Karygiannis from using the killings to call for mandatory minimum sentences for pot growers, including a two-year mandatory minimum for someone growing as few as three plants. "My prayers and thoughts are with the families of the fallen officers," Karygiannis said. "The need to discuss tougher sentencing for marijuana grow house operators is paramount. We are facing an epidemic of marijuana grow-house operations."
BC Liberal Ginny Hasselfield, who authored the resolution calling for stricter grow op penalties, also used the killings to shill for her proposal. "We've been concerned about things like this (shooting in Alberta) potentially happening," said Hasselfield. "And that's why we feel we have to get tough on this issue. Grow-ops are a scourge in this country."
Hasselfield's comments drew loud groans from the back of the hall. "Do we want a US war-on-drugs approach to this problem? Or will we sit down and consider a Liberal solution?" responded one delegate to loud cheers.
In votes over the weekend, both the legalization resolution and the grow op penalty resolution failed to win approval to become party policy. At the same time, the federal government was hurrying to get aboard the punish-grow-ops bandwagon.
By Monday, RCMP Commissioner Zaccarellli was retracting his comments linking the killings to the grow op problem. In an interview with the National Post, he conceded that his condemnation of grow-ups the night of the killings may have been hasty. "I gave what I believed was the best information I had knowing full well that at that time I didn't have all the information," a contrite Zaccardelli said. "Clearly, there's a lot of things in there that, in hindsight, we will have to look at in a different perspective."
But now the political landscape has shifted and pressure for tougher grow-up penalties increases.