A new British Columbia-based coalition is calling for the legalization and regulation of marijuana, claiming that illegal trafficking of the drug is fuelling gang violence, despite the best efforts of law enforcement.
The coalition – named Stop the Violence – includes high-profile groups and institutions such as the University of British Columbia, Centre for Addictions Research BC, Providence Health Care, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, as well as former BC Supreme Court justice Ross Lander and chief coroner Vince Cain.
The group claims the drug is more available to school children than tobacco and alcohol, and that gang wars within the industry causes dozens of deaths every year.
According to Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) statistics, the percentage of BC gang-related homicides has risen from 21 in 1997 to 34 in 2009. Stop the Violence, however, said there were 43 such deaths in 2009. Furthermore, they pointed out 276 gang-related drive-by shootings that year, which present a more immediate threat to public safety.
Jodie Emery – wife of BC marijuana policy reform advocate Marc Emery, who is currently serving a five-year sentence in an American prison for the sale of cannabis seeds – is director-at-large of the BC Green Party, and has been campaigning for the legalization of the drug for years.
“The message is very important,” Emery said. “We need to point out violence is caused by the policies surrounding the drug and not the drug itself. Keeping it illegal keeps it under the control of gangs.”
Donald Skogstad, a prominent criminal lawyer in BC, told The Daily that the war on drugs diverts resources and prevents law enforcement agencies from dealing with other more serious issues.
“Gangs in BC are highly developed and control what’s become a multi-billion dollar industry,” he said. “The situation we’re in at this moment regarding marijuana legislation is the worst possible. It’s prohibition.”
At the federal level, an omnibus crime bill was reintroduced in September after being voted down before last May’s national election. The bill seeks to mandate provinces to crack down on illegal drug trafficking across the country.
The majority Conservative government has promised to pass the bill – called the “Safe Streets and Communities Act” – within 100 sitting days of the next Parliament session, which starts June 6.
Minister of Justice Rob Nicholson said in a press release that the bill was introduced “on a promise to get tough on child sexual offenders, crack down on illegal drug trafficking, and improve the overall efficiency of our judicial system.”
The portion of the legislation dedicated to drug consumption and trafficking, Bill C-10, extends the maximum sentences for any marijuana-related crime from 7 to 14 years, and contains mandatory minimum prison sentences for growing cannabis.
The Conservative government has estimated that the implementation of the bill would cost $78.5 million, a figure contested by the opposition. Provinces have also criticized the Conservative government for not detailing how much provincial governments would have to pay, should the bill pass. Both Quebec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty have said they would be unwilling to foot the bill for the federal initiative.
Skogstad said the bill would use resources from all provinces in a useless effort to reduce crime.
Emery explained that cracking down on marijuana trafficking will do the opposite of what it claims to, saying it could cost taxpayers billions of dollars through consequences like increased prison populations, and serve to make the drug market more violent than it already is.
“The only parties who benefit from this are the police, the politicians and the gangsters,” Emery said.