11/10/2011 03:32 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Crime Bill: Marijuana In Small Quantities Still Won't Attract Charges, Say B.C. Police

VICTORIA - The Conservative government says it means business when it comes to fighting marijuana growers, but there's a nudge-nudge, wink-wink feeling in British Columbia over Ottawa's plans to jail people caught growing six marijuana plants.

The B.C. Liberal government and police say they back Prime Minister Stephen Harper's plans to fight drug lords with new crime laws, but the zeal for justice mellows when faced with jailing people for growing six pot plants.

While marijuana activists are saying tougher pot laws will only pack already crowded provincial jails and cost provincial governments millions, police are suggesting the backyard growers shouldn't worry about going to jail because it's the big dealers they're out to fry.

"Police just don't have the capacity to target people who are simply possessing a couple of joints or the person who is growing a marijuana plant because, personally, they make the choice to smoke marijuana," said Tom Stamatakis, a Vancouver police officer and B.C. Police Association president.

Stamatakis said police officers will do what they've always done when they come across a yard with a few marijuana plants or find a person with a small bag of pot despite the new laws.

Officers will use their discretion to size up each situation and decide if legal action is required, he said.

If they don't, the province will need two or three times more police officers and the courts will overflow beyond belief, he said.

"Our focus is around those who engage in the production of drugs whether it's producing marijuana or other drugs, and the trafficking and distribution of those drugs," said Stamatakis.

He said police appreciate and support the mandatory minimum marijuana sentences because they serve as deterrents in fighting organized crime.

"As someone who represents frontline police officers, I think we have to have tools in place that allow us to deal with chronic offenders and people who are engaged in organized crime," he said.

Currently, convictions for marijuana cultivation carry a maximum penalty of seven years, but no mandatory minimum. The new law would impose a mandatory minimum of six months in jail for growing between six and 200 pot plants.

The current law also has no mandatory minimum for possession of marijuana for the purposes of trafficking of up to three kilograms, but a maximum sentence of five years less a day. The new law bumps up the maximum sentence to 14 years.

The changes are part of a nine-bill piece of omnibus crime legislation that includes a new act to deal with violent young offenders and restricted house arrest for violent and serious crimes. The legislation is being fast-tracked through Parliament by the Conservative government.

Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said organized crime has deep roots in marijuana cultivation in B.C. — an estimated $7-billion-a-year activity — and police and courts need more weapons to fight the criminals.

But while government and police officials choose to shift focus to the bigger picture of fighting organized crime when the six-plant jail minimum is mentioned, others are openly saying getting tough on smaller growers won't fly.

"It's fairly likely that police discretion and corrections discretion will step in where the letter of the law is extreme," said Simon Fraser University criminologist Prof. Rob Gordon, a former police officer.

"A lot of discretion is left in the hands of police officers, and as you well know, on the West Coast there's a fair degree of sympathy for low visibility, quiet, domestic producers of slightly mind-altering substances for family consumption," he said.

B.C. Attorney General Shirley Bond said she's most concerned about fighting organized crime, and wants police and the courts to use the new laws to arrest and sentence offenders.

She didn't openly say police would look the other way on small amounts of pot, but suggested there are major criminals out there who need to feel the full weight of the law.

"You're still going to have the police officers and others using discretion," Bond said.

"What British Columbia is concerned about is getting tough on serious crime in British Columbia. We are concerned about the link between marijuana grow-ops and organized crime."

But Vancouver pot activist Dana Larsen, a former B.C. New Democratic Party leadership candidate, said the proposed mandatory minimum sentences will jam the province's already overcrowded jails and clogged court system.

He said he believes the proposed marijuana law does not reflect the attitudes of most British Columbians and Canadians when it comes to marijuana.

"I don't think that most British Columbians, and even most Canadians, believe that someone who possesses marijuana should go to jail," Larsen said.

He said B.C. already has the highest rate of marijuana convictions in Canada, and this tougher law only encourages the development of larger marijuana grow-ops, which translates into more organized crime.

"Someone growing six plants might as well grow 194 more because they are going to get the same penalty in the end," said Larsen.

Larsen pointed to Statistics Canada which reported that B.C. has consistently led the country in drug offences over the past 30 years.

Stats Canada reports that in 2007, marijuana charges accounted for six in 10 drug offence charges in Canada.

A recent Justice Department study obtained by The Canadian Press through an access to information request concluded only about one in every six people convicted in marijuana grow-op cases goes to jail.

The Justice Department examined court cases involving indoor grow-ops in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario between 1997 and 2005, a study billed as unique because it was multi-jurisdictional and included criminal records from a police database. The cases were chosen randomly from all such prosecutions over the eight-year period.

Among many findings, researchers determined that only a handful of the 415 people convicted in the grow-op cases were actually sent to jail.

Criminologist Darryl Plecas, who teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley, said most British Columbians are not aware of how connected pot growing is to organized crime in the province.

He said he supports Ottawa's plans to get tough on marijuana cultivation.

"If somebody wants to have a grow-op, you have to have a connection in one fashion or another to organized crime," said Plecas. "The notion that there's people out there with Ma-and-Pa operations, that's just not happening out there."

Plecas said the average size of a grow-op in the Williams Lake area of the B.C. Interior is 1,000 plants and the average size of a grow-op in Mission in the Fraser Valley is 750 plants.

He said 80 per cent of the marijuana produced in B.C. is exported, estimated at more than 680,000 kilograms and worth about $7 billion to the B.C. economy.

Studies show that British Columbians personally consume about 84,000 kilograms of marijuana annually.

Plecas said courts have been too soft on pot growers in the past and police and the courts need more deterrents to fight organized crime on the marijuana cultivation front.

He said people fighting the proposed six-plant mandatory minimum sentence are in a "time warp."

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