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New law creates confusion

By Hempology | May 29, 2003

From the Times Colonist, May 29, 2003

By Jack Knox

In honour of the federal govenrment’s new marijuana law, today’s newspaper comes to you
with gummed edges.

No, no, no, that would be premature. The decriminalization of marijuana is still only
a proposal, one that may well go up in smoke before making it out of Parliament.

As it is, the consequences of change are uncertain. Maybe Douglas Street will
smell like a Grateful Dead concert. Or maybe not. Decriminalization might result in
more smokers facing punshiment – if the police can enforce the law. Higher
penalties for growers could push up prices – if the tougher sentences are more than
a pipe dream.

In trying to please both the Just Say No and Legalize It croweds, Ottawa has created
a muddle. Today’s drug law is brought to you by Cheech and Chong and Nancy Regan.

Confusion abounds. Never mind the wisdom of decriminalization, Victoria Police Chief
Paul Batttershill is puzzled by the mechanics. “I would say I’m skeptical of the
enforcement process.”

The new law will replace criminal possession charges with tickets for people caught
with small amounts of marijuana, the amount of the fine rising with the amount of dope.
Will that force police to carry around scales of justice to weigh the pot? How will
the tickets be enforced? Will there be a non-payment penalty? The power to issue tickets
will come through a piece of legislation that B.C. has yet to enact.

Victoria medical marijuana advocate Ted Smith says that when Australia brought in a ticketing
system like that proposed by Canada, more people went to jail for non-payment of fines
than ever did time for possession.

The truth is, police in Victoria rarely bust anyone found with a few joints. It’s a lot
of hassle, the penalties are laughable, and otherwise law-abiding citizens can end up
with a criminal record. When police do lay a possession charge, it’s usually because they
think they’ve caught ad rug dealer but don’t have enough evidence to nail him for

The new law means no court time for the cop, no criminal record for the accused. Users
who walk away from the police now with nothing worse than an empty baggie and a stern
lecture will in the future get a $150 fine. “As soon as the cop writes the ticket, his
job will be done,” notes Smith. “Right now, the charge is just the beginning.”

Meanwhile, Ottawa made a big deal about doubling the maximum sentence for cultivation
to 14 years from seven. But what really matters is the sentencing floor, not the ceiling.
In B.C. only one per cent of those charged with dealing drugs were sentance to two years
or more in the year 2000. The average Canadian trafficker got just 90 days that year.
In Indonesia, growing marijuana can mean a death penalty. On this Island, it’s an ankle
bracelet and two weeks with no dessert.

Still, the new law would force judges to give written reasons for not jailing people
caught with more than three plants, under certain circumstances. If growers do face
greater risks, that may drive up pot prices, particularly if decriminalization’s tacit
message – Jean Chrétien wants you to get wasted – drives up demand.

The potential for confused messages about booze, marijuana and other durgs worries
Battershill. “There really needs to be a clear message out there about the dangers of drugs
like crystal meth,” he says.

Smith, meanwhile, is unhappy that the changes gloss over the need to implement
medical-marijuana regulations. That need, he says, is what’s pushing decriminalization.
Provincial courts in Onratio, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island have been tossing
out possession cases because of Ottawa’s failure to clarify the law.

But then, there’s a lot about this law that isn’t clear.

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