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Decriminalization not the answer to marijuana issue

By Michael Cust
web posted August 5, 2002

So Canadian Justice Minister Martin Cauchon and his Liberal cohorts are contemplating marijuana decriminalization. Long overdue, their plan calls for fines for those Canadians caught with small amounts of marijuana. This new change would replace the prevailing system, where pot smokers face a criminal record and a potential prison sentence.

Canadian Justice Minister Martin Cauchon
Cauchon

Now before everyone gets all worked up into a frenzy of excitement, it should be noted that this isn't the be-all, end-all solution for the marijuana issue. In fact, it won't even solve the current problems surrounding marijuana. For that to happen, marijuana needs to be legalized.

And don't think that I'm asking for too much. It's clear that the government is throwing legalization advocates a bone with this move. And it is true that replacing criminal records and prison sentences with fines is a de jure improvement. But this change does little to address the key problems with marijuana: the involvement of organized crime in the marijuana trade; the inflated price of marijuana; and the deterioration of individual rights.

First, the problem of organized crime. Because marijuana is illegal for production and sale, those who are involved in the business have no access to the Canadian legal system to mediate their disputes. This makes violence a competitive advantage for people who are inclined to use violence. If one person can just beat up or kill another person to protect their high drug profits, why not?

And when you can use violence to push out competitors, organized crime naturally moves into the market. Although this largely hasn't happened in Alberta and B.C., it has in Quebec. There, violent clashes between biker gangs have led to the injury and often the death of innocent bystanders.

As long people can't legally grow or legally sell marijuana, violent criminals will be involved in the trade to a greater or lesser extent. In effect, this means that the prohibition of the marijuana trade is a regulation that protects organized crime's involvement in the marijuana industry.

Second, prohibition causes the price of marijuana to be artificially high. Every time police arrest a dealer or a grower and seize their marijuana, the supply of marijuana is reduced. This practice, coupled with a consistent demand for marijuana by pot smokers, leads to an artificially high price. Supply is reduced, while the demand stays constant, causing the price to rise. This means that marijuana, which now costs some $250 an ounce, may only cost $20-30 an ounce under legalization.

Now people aren't stealing for marijuana, like they do for hard drugs, so the price problem isn't as bad as it is for other drugs. But the reality is that large amounts of money in the economy are being concentrated in the hands of people we probably don't like all that much – people like those involved in organized crime. And the last thing anyone wants is large amounts of money from our economy concentrated in the hands of violent criminals.

Third, marijuana prohibition has led to the erosion of our liberty. As the Americans move away from their classical traditions, most recently with talk of a program where 4% of U.S. citizens could become spies on their fellow citizens in a bid to "counter terrorism," Canadians have to ask ourselves in which direction do we want to head?

Do we want to maintain our current freedoms and pursue a freer society, or do we want to move towards a society where government controls more of our private decisions?

In a free society, it is assumed that individuals have certain rights that give them a reasonable level of autonomy from government intervention into their affairs. In the case of marijuana, we have to consider the importance of our right to self-ownership... Do people own their own bodies? If so, can they put things in their bodies that they want to? Even if those things are vices?

If we want a free and liberal society, the answer is yes. And, is the legalization of marijuana too much to ask? I would hope not.

Cauchon's current policy proposal, although a tiny step in the right direction, will do nothing to curb the current problems that plague marijuana right now, being organized crime, high drug prices, and the erosion of personal liberty.

When the choice is between more crime and less freedom, or more freedom and less crime, I choose the latter. Let's hope Justice Minister Cauchon is smart enough to choose the same.

Michael Cust is a political science student at the University of Alberta and communications director for the B.C. Marijuana Party.

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