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CANADA'S POT REVOLUTION

By: Stephen Glass, Rolling Stone (US)', 09/04/03

North of the Border, Marijuana Policy Is Changing Radically. and The White House Is Not Happy

In November 2001, when Alain Berthiaume - Montreal's most prominet marijuana activist - was arrested on drug charges, the best advice might have been to plead guilty. Berthiaume, who owns a head shop, a grow shop, a seed band and a pot-culture magazine, was caught organizing his third annual Cannabis Cup - a public competition for marijuana growers. Several months later, the police raided his home and found 1,2000 cannabis plants - what Berthiaume calls his "small plantation"

But Berthiaume thought he shouldn't have to go to prison. "I've been smoking all my life," he says. "I no longer want to be treated as a failure, a drug addict, a fucking thief."

So when the prosecutor offered him a plea deal with only one year of jail time, he refused it.

And Berthiaume might just win.

In the past few months, a storm of legal reforms in Canada has made it likely that marijuana will be decriminalized before the year is out. By then, Parliament is expected to have passed a bill that will make the possession of small amounts of marijuana merely a ticketable offense, much like speeding. Meanwhile, this past spring, an Ontario court voided the country's possession law on technical grounds, meaning that in the province at least, there is currently no law against possessing small amounts of marijuana. And this fall, the Canadian Supreme Court will determine whether the country's laws prohibiting marijuana possession are unconstitutional and therefore must be struck down altogether.

Predictably, these reforms have the Bush administration steaming. Asa Hutchinson, a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security, warned Canadian journalists that their country would face "consequences" it passed decriminalization.

The U.S. "would have to respond" to a change in Canada's drug laws, David Murray, a top member of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told reporters in Vancouver. "This isn't Woodstock."

And John Walters, the drug czar himself, hinted in an interview with the Boston Globe that the northern border of the U.S. may have to be restricted, maybe even semimilitarized, like the border with Mexico. That's a significant threat to the Canadian economy, which relies heavily on fluid trade with the U.S.

But for all its bravado, the Bush administration has Canada's marijuana laws all wrong. The Canadians don't see the proposed new law as a step towards legalization; officials there see it as a soft and sensible way to crack down on drug use. Adults caught with fifteen grams or less (about half an ounce) would be fined $150 (U.S. $107); minors would own $100 (U.S. $71) and a letter would be sent to their parents. That would be the extent of it. No handcuffs, no mug shot, no overnight in lockup, no court appearance. Moreover, as with parking violations there would no cumulative punishments - as long as you paid your tickets, you could rack up an infinite number of infractions without fear of additional or harsher penalties.

In larger cases, when an individual is caught with between fifteen and thirty grams, police would have the discretion to issue a ticket (with double the fines) or file criminal charges, carrying the old penalties - up to six months in jail.

Unlike in the U.S., where pot prosecutions have skyrocketed during the past few years - more than 640,000 people were arrested for possession in 2001, nearly double the number arrested for all marijuana offenses in 1992 - Canada's judicial system only rarely enforces its own pot laws.

In 1999, Canadian police charged only about 21,000 people with cannabis possession. And that's only about half the number of times law enforcement reported an "incident" of cannabis possession. In other words, police looked the other way just as often as they arrested people.

Richmond, British Columbia - a city whose prosecutions were examined by a government commission - is a good example. In 2001, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found individuals in possession of marijuana 605 times. But they charged only thirty people. In short, Dudley Do-Right isn't doing much. And the country's leaders are realistic about it. "We don't believe that charging [and] prosecuting some 25,000 people a year really sends a message about the harmful effects of marijuana," says Richard Mosley, a senior official in Canada's Department of Justice. A Canadian Senate committee came to the same conclusion last year, noting that "any deterrent effect [the current law] may have [is] seriously in doubt."

Instead, the Department of Justice expects that when the penalty is reduced to a mere fine, nabbing offenders will be more efficient, and in turn a far greater number of Canadians will be pinched for pot. Criminologists call this phenomenon the "net-widening effect."

"[This reform] is not in any way an endorsement of a relaxed approach to the possession and use of cannabis," Mosley says. "The level of enforcement will go up."

Moreover, the bill, if anything, ought to lessen the flow of pot from Canada to the U.S., not increase it - making the Bush administration'sconcerns even more off the mark.

The proposed law will double the penalties - from seven to fourteen years - for large-scale growers: those with fifty plants or more, who presumably cultivate much of the pot that is shipped south. At the same time, it leaves untouched the current draconian penalties for trafficking or exporting drugs - offenses that still allow life imprisonment.

In sharp counterpoint to the U.S., Canada simply lacks any strong voice in favor of strict enforcement of criminal penalties for marijuana use. Last September, Canada's Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs issued an exhaustive 600-page-plus report that examined every aspect of the country's marijuana laws and concluded that legalization was the necessary reform.

Instead, some lawmakers even seem to find the whole subject amusing, treating it with a casual offhandedness unthinkable for their U.S. counterparts. When asked by reporters whether he had ever smoked marijuana, Minister of Justice Martin Cauchon said, "I'm thirty-nine years old.... Yes, of course I tried it before, obviously." And when the bill got delayed at one point, Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien told reporters, "It's coming, it's coming. Relax. You don't have to smoke it to relax."

Even Dan McTeague, one of the bill's leading, and most thoughtful, opponents, was careful to say, "I don't believe you throw people in jail because they smoked marijuana. That's absurd." Instead, McTeague says he will oppose the bill because he's concerned about the health consequences for marijuana users and the public-safety risks of widespread pot use.

Ironically, it's the pot activists who seem most upset about the upcoming changes in the law, seeing them as a rear-guard attempt to recriminalize pot possession after it had already been decriminalized in practice (though not in law). All across the country, smokers and growers have been ignoring pot laws during the past few years, banking on the fact that even if they got arrested, nothing would happen. Pot is openly smoked in coffee shops in Vancouver and even in smaller, provincial cities such as Saint John, New Brunswick.

"It's all cosmetic," says Marc-Boris St.-Maurice, the leader of the federal Marijuana Party, who has been arrested several times on pot charges. "The day the government realizes there's money to be made writing tickets for potheads, we're going to increase the amount of potheads being targeted."

At Crosstown Traffic, an Ottawa head shop, many of the clients said they, too, were worried about the ticketing scheme. One customer, Oliver Greer, a smart, confident, and at times very funny nineteen-year-old, is particularly concerned about how much the new law sill cost him. Greer says he smokes between fifteen and twenty joints a day.

"If you get caught smoking a joint by a cop, he's just going to take it and throw it away," Greer says. But when the ticketing system kicks in, he predicts, "For people who smoke lots and lots of weed, the fucking tickets are going to add up, you know what I mean?"

Pot has reached so deeply into Canadian daily life that Canada could very well become the most stoned country on earth. According to Alain Berthiaume, even small towns - some with as few as 15,000 people - have grow shops.

In Saint John, a small costal city ninety minutes from the Maine border, Jim Wood recently added a pot-friendly coffee bar to Hemp N.B., the head shop that he and his wife, Lynn, own. But later this month, the couple says they will become the very first to take the final, most controversial step for Canada's marijuana movement: They will begin openly selling pot to the public over the counter. Even Berthiaume - despite his many marijuana ventures - never actually deals, but the Woods intend to do some, and to do it unabashedly.

"What we want," says Jim Wood, "is Americans coming up here, spending their U.S. dollars on our pot."

Wood believes he has the right to sell pot thanks to a loophole in Canada's medical-marijuana laws: The cafe at Hemp N.B. will sell pot to anyone who presents a photocopy of any doctor's diagnosis. While Hemp N.B. will check to ensure the diagnosis comes from a legitimate doctor, a customer's doctor's note can say anything. It need not prescribe marijuana, Wood stresses. It doesn't even need to be evidence of an illness that's normally thought to be treatable with marijuana. "Dandruff would work," says Wood. "If you felt that eating or smoking pot - or maybe even rubbing it in your hair - would help, you're more than free to do so, as far as I'm concerned."

Wood says that he and his wife designed the coffee shop at Hemp N.B. to resemble a well-worn 1970s living room, with an overabundance of houseplants, checkers and cribbage sets, and comfortable seats. Adults over nineteen, he says, may never smoke their own pot as long as they buy a cup of coffee. Tobacco smokers, thought, must take their cigarettes outside. In May, a few weeks after the cafe opened, police officers hauled off five pot smokers. But when they appeared in court, an officer told them to go home. Charges still haven't been filed, presumably because of the current flux in the law. (In Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, to other eastern Canadian provinces, the courts have suspended all marijuana prosecutions.)

Now, business is booming. Wood says he's getting about seventy-five customers a day; and, increasingly, Americans making port calls on North Atlantic cruse ships are stopping by - just as he'd hoped.

Wood seems to be anticipating a future free of marijuana laws, or at least of their enforcement - and so, in his own way, is Berthiaume. Ten years from now, Berthiaume says, he's "positive, positive, positive" that there won't be trials like his anymore in Canada.

For now, though, he is awaiting sentencing. Based on the judge's reactions from the bench, Berthiaume expects to receive six months to a year in prison, or maybe house arrest. But he vows that the legal hassles won't cause him to cancel his Cannabis Cup for the second straight year. "We're going to do it again, man," he assured me. "We cannot let that go, man."