On the morning of May 15th, British Columbians will wake up to the prospect of four years of either an NDP or a Liberal government in our province.
What will this government have to say about cannabis and its control? If we can judge from the commentary to date from both Adrian Dix and Christy Clark, it will be that the control of cannabis is a federal responsibility, mandated by section 91 (27) of the Constitution Act. That section, often referred to as the criminal law power, gives the federal government exclusive jurisdiction in relation to the creation of both criminal law and criminal procedure.
But there is another section of the Constitution Act that is a part of the catalogue of provincial powers and has direct relevance to the issue of cannabis. Section 92 (14) gives provinces the power to administer justice in the province; the province cannot use this power to nullify existing federal law, but it can very legitimately set priorities in both police enforcement and courtroom prosecutions, priorities that reflect public safety, the relative costs and returns on investment for public expenditures, and the interests of its constituents. A moratorium on the enforcement of simple possession of cannabis would be an entirely reasonable initiative, clearly supported by a majority of the province's citizens.
Here are the problems with continuing to enforce the criminal prohibition of cannabis possession in B.C. after May 15th:
1. It does nothing -- there will be no impact on rates of use.
This law is very expensive to enforce and prosecute, and there is no credible evidence that these efforts affect the rates of use in the province. In fact, there is no good evidence from any jurisdiction in the world that the decriminalization of the simple possession offence will increase rates of use.
2. It is very costly -- $40 to 60 million will be spent by taxpayers on cannabis possession during the term of the next provincial government.
A best and conservative estimate of the costs of both police enforcement and court prosecution is that more than $10-million is spent annually in British Columbia for simple possession alone -- and the annual toll has doubled since 2005. This money could be better spent on health care, education, or, more pointedly, on the enforcement and prosecution of other more serious kinds of crime. Doing nothing means that we will spend at least $40-million during the term of the next government on a policy that has no evidence of any benefits, and up to $60-million, if recent enforcement trends continue.
3. Adults who use cannabis are not deserving of the moral stigma of criminality.
What is worse than the excessive costs of enforcement and prosecution is that, through a failure to act, the provincial government will be complicit, with the federal government, in labeling thousands of young people as criminals, giving them travel and employment disabilities for doing something that is -- for most people and in most circumstances -- less harmful to their physical and mental health than the consumption of alcohol or tobacco.
4. Current enforcement and prosecution practices are discriminatory and arbitrary.
Recent research has demonstrated clearly that the RCMP rate of enforcement for simple possession offences is very different from the rate of enforcement in the city of Vancouver, with no corresponding evidence of variations in rates of use. When we look carefully at a sample of the 13,000 individuals who were found by police to be in possession last year in B.C. and the 1,200 folks who were convicted, the rationale for moving from a large number of arrests to a small number of charges and conviction is elusive. These are all typically young people, using in public settings, but about 1,200 of them lose the enforcement and prosecution lottery, and are labeled as criminals.
5. There are other measures for responding to the problems that flow from public marijuana use.
It is clear that the public use of marijuana, much like the public use of tobacco or alcohol, can be a nuisance. The province has the power to control public consumption of cannabis through a variety of civil statutes, rather than through a reliance on the power of criminal law. Further, the problem of driving under the influence of cannabis can be dealt with, either through administrative suspensions under the province's Motor Vehicle Act, or in cases of clear impairment, through existing criminal law.
6. It is clear that a strong majority of British Columbians do not support the criminalization of cannabis use and cannabis users.
An Angus Reid Poll in 2012 indicated that 61 per cent of British Columbians support the taxation and regulation of cannabis, a more dramatic move than the cautious act of decriminalization. And another Angus Reid poll from April of this year found that 73 per cent of British Columbians would support a research trial conducted by local experts and health scientists to evaluate whether taxation and regulation of adult marijuana use could cut profits to organized crime and improve the prevention of youth access to the drug.
Simply put, there is no support for continuing with the status quo.