Times Colonist Editorial: Time to debate new pot laws

A grown-up discussion of marijuana laws would be welcome during the election campaign. The current approach isn’t working, as two recent news stories have demonstrated.

Last week, the Ontario Superior Court found Canada’s laws against possessing and growing marijuana are unconstitutional. Justice Donald Taliano found the federal government allows medical marijuana use, but has created regulations that make access difficult and sometimes impossible, which violates patients’ rights.

Until that is fixed, people have the right to grow and possess marijuana, the court found. Taliano gave the government three months to appeal or change the regulations; the government, predictably, has chosen to appeal.

And also last week, B.C. Hydro said it is suing grow-op owners who bypassed power meters to steal electricity.

It’s pursuing 19 claims for $2.1 million, or an average of $110,000.

B.C. Hydro also repeated its estimate that grow-ops are stealing $100 million worth of electricity a year. (That estimate has climbed as the Crown corporation attempts to justify its $1-billion smart-meter plan.)

Using B.C. Hydro’s figures for average grow-op power use, that means there are about 17,000 grow-ops stealing electricity in B.C. Other operators take the chance of paying for power or using generators. And there are roughly 4,000 outdoor grow-ops, according to research.

That means there are more than 22,000 marijuana grow-ops in the province. At least 40,000 people are likely employed, at least part-time, just tending the plants. The legal agriculture sector employs 32,000.

That suggest several realities. First, there is an enormous market for marijuana, inside and outside the province, which indicates many people don’t believe it should be illegal and ignore the law.

Second, we are asking police and the courts to take on a hopeless task. There would never be enough resources to find 22,000 grow-ops.

And third, we are following a drug policy that does not work. It hasn’t reduced marijuana use. It has cost billions in enforcement, court and prison costs. And it has created a lucrative revenue stream that has funded the growth of criminal gangs across Canada.

It has now been 39 years since the LeDain Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs reported.

After three years of hearings and research, it recommended the federal government decriminalize marijuana and that provinces introduce controls on use, possession and production. In short, treat marijuana like alcohol. The commission also recommended the federal government continue research on the impact of the changes on use and possible problems.

It’s widely accepted -including by courts, health experts and the public -that marijuana is less harmful than tobacco, alcohol and hard drugs. It poses less risk of addiction, damaged health or social problems, and use does not lead to crime or violence or other drugs.

That is not to say that it is entirely benign. Any intoxicant has negative effects for some people.

But there is no fact-based case for treating it differently than alcohol or wasting so much money on ineffectual enforcement of laws that lack public support.

There has been little discussion of the issue. The Conservatives oppose decriminalization because it “sends out the wrong message,” according to Rob Nicholson, who was justice minister. It’s unclear what that message is. The party also favours tougher punishment, including mandatory jail time for anyone growing six or more pot plants.

The Liberals oppose the mandatory jail time, but don’t support broader decriminalization. The New Democrats propose decriminalizing possession, but would apparently continue current policies on grow-ops and sales.

Only the Greens have proposed legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana.

We are spending billions on policies that have failed for decades. It is past time to consider and discuss new approaches.

© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist