In a four-day series of editorials last week, British Columbia's largest newspaper, the Vancouver Sun, called for the legalization of marijuana. The editorial series came as parliament considers a middle-ground measure to decriminalize pot possession and as Canada reeled from the killings of four Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in a raid only tangentially -- but sensationally -- linked to a small marijuana grow-op in Alberta.
The Sun came out swinging. "Since the murder of four RCMP officers in Alberta last Thursday, some people are urging the federal government to scrap its marijuana reform legislation, which would decriminalize possession of small amounts of the substance and increase the maximum penalty for growing it," the newspaper noted on March 8. "The feds should ignore these calls. Indeed, Ottawa might even have to consider legalization of marijuana if it's to stop organized crime from profiting and to minimize the violence this activity unleashes."
Canadian cannabis prohibition, the Sun noted, began for no reason at all in 1923, when marijuana was "almost unknown" in Canada. "To this day, no one knows why marijuana was banned. Parliamentarians had no evidence that marijuana caused any physical, psychological or social harm," the paper explained. "Nevertheless, the legislation was passed without debate, which isn't surprising since parliamentarians could hardly have engaged in debate concerning a substance about which they knew nothing."
Despite such sensible reviews as the LeDain Commission report in 1973, which found no evidence supporting the continued criminalization of marijuana, the Sun continued, a prohibitionist mentality continues to dominate Canadian marijuana policy, and the government's decriminalization bill reflects that ideology. In its second editorial March 9, the Sun dissected that policy and found it wanting: "The legal prohibition of marijuana has been one of the most spectacular failures of the 20th century," said the Sun.
The Sun zeroed in on a key analytical failure of prohibitionists: the assumption that the application of criminal sanctions has a serious impact on drug use levels. "So what is the relationship between marijuana prohibition and marijuana use?" the Sun asked. "There isn't one: As a number of European studies have demonstrated, the severity of drug laws simply has no effect on the level of drug use."
With marijuana use "influenced much more strongly by cultural factors and social values than by the law," prohibition does not work, and it has pernicious consequences, the Sun agued. "This suggests that our attempt to control marijuana use through the blunt instrument of the law is doomed to fail -- indeed, it has already failed. And while failing, it has created a monster," the criminality associated with the market in prohibited goods.
On March 10, the Sun considered the government's decrim bill, which would remove criminal penalties for possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana. Instead, offenders would receive tickets and fines. But penalties for marijuana growers would increase, doubling from seven to 14 years for more than 50 plants. While calling decrim a good idea "in principle," the Sun suggested it would both lead to increased enforcement of pot laws and "will likely strengthen the hand of organized crime." Thus, the bill and its middle way between legalization and prohibition could be a "worst case scenario, even worse than leaving the law as it is."
"The alternative -- legalization -- is one no country has taken yet, but it's an alternative the international community should consider," the Sun exhorted. "Canada can lead the way by explaining to the world the benefits of this radically different approach to dealing with marijuana."
On March 11, the Sun noted that despite the failure of marijuana prohibition, no country had legalized marijuana because of the "intransigence of the US" and the international treaties it backs. It is time to get beyond that and Canada can lead the way, the Sun suggested. "Many countries recognize the folly of the war on drugs, and are, therefore, open to discussing legalization and regulation. Canada is particularly well suited to promoting such discussions."
A clarion call for cannabis liberation has come from unexpected quarters on the Pacific Coast.