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Media verdict: pot ban must go

By Hempology | July 28, 2007

The Hill Times, CN
23 Jul 2007
Tom Korski


Prohibition has a bad name, though Canadians never run out of things they’d like to prohibit.  Ironic, no?

Politicians and editorial writers cry for the abolition of trans fats, put bulls, plastic bags, bank fees, SUVs, telemarketers, leg hold traps, overnight parking, and beer on Sunday.  Yet, attempt a serious discussion on prohibition of marijuana and we’re reduced to sputtering about “a state that does not dictate what should be consumed,” as a pro-cannabis Senate committee put it in 2002.

Advocates of decriminalizing marijuana were buoyed by recent reports that Canada rates among the world’s highest pot users, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and surveys showed arrests for pot possession last year rose 20 per cent or more.

Media’s verdict was nearly unanimous: the pot ban must go.  “It’s difficult to understand why possession of marijuana for personal use remains a criminal offence,” wrote The Montreal Gazette. 

“There is no sense saddling otherwise law-abiding Canadians with criminal records for smoking pot,” agreed The Globe and Mail.

“The only way to control the purity of the product – and thereby protect the health of the user – is through regulation of the growth and sale of marijuana,” said The Vancouver Sun.

Edmonton Sun columnist Mindelle Jacobs lamented the “costly and fruitless attempt to use the law as a whip to scare people off illicit drugs.”

The Hill Times last week published a commentary by British Columbia Liberal Senator Larry Campbell who wrote, “There is absolutely no reason that a 15-year old high school student experimenting with marijuana for the first time should face the prospect of a criminal record.”

Well, there is one reason.  Smoking marijuana remains a crime because well-intentioned people believe if it were not, more children would smoke it, and everyone agrees smoking is unhealthy.  The Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs that advocated legalizing marijuana five years ago acknowledged, “An exemption regime making cannabis available to those over the age of 16 could probably lead to an increase in cannabis use for a certain period.” When Jean Chretien joked about pot in 2003 — “I will have my money for my fine and a joint in the other hand,” he said — there were protests from parents.  “As a mother, I am appalled at Prime Minister Chretien,” a woman wrote the Vancouver Sun.  “Children are watching you.”

Opponents of the pot ban assert history is on their side in claiming prohibition is “folly” ( Winnipeg Sun ) by those who are “blind to history” ( Edmonton Sun ).  A Global TV documentary Damage Done asked, “Should law enforcement officers be expected to enforce laws that don’t make sense?”

Toronto Star columnist Jim Coyle cited the prohibition of liquor and winked, “History records how well that worked out.”

In fact, it worked out beautifully.  Prohibition in Canada is proven to have discouraged drinking and lowered the crime rate.  Historians rate it a big success.

By 1917, every province but Quebec and New Brunswick was dry.  Crime in Edmonton fell 78 per cent, according to the 1917 Canadian Annual Review.  Prohibition-era Calgary had so little crime it laid off half the police department.  Historian James Gray, in his 1972 chronicle Booze, documented declines of 50 per cent in crime rates in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.  “If all the liquor involved in all the lawbreaking reported in a month was gathered in one spot it would hardly have equaled the booze sold by a single city bar on a single payday in the pre-Prohibition decade,” Gray wrote.

In Ontario, police credited dry laws for a 20 per cent decline in the prison population.  “Prohibition Is A Success From Every Standpoint,” read a 1917 Globe headline.

Nor was it a uniquely Canadian success.  Wartime prohibitionists successfully abolished beer in Germany, vodka in Russia and absinthe in France.  A 58 per cent decline in alcohol consumption in Britain between 1914 and 1918 was due to restrictions on pub sales that put “demon drink demonstrably on the run,” journalist E.S.  Turner wrote in his wartime history Dear Old Blighty.

Why does the media cast prohibition as a failure? It mirrors the

popular image of the U.S. experience dramatized in Depression-era films.
Say ‘prohibition’ and we think of gangland shootings in Chicago, not

police layoffs in Calgary. Yet reasons for prohibition’s failure in the U.S. are often obscured. The repeal of dry laws in 1933 followed inept enforcement by a federal Prohibition Bureau that was understaffed and underfunded. The bureau required $300-million U.S. a year and instead received a fraction as much, as little as $5-million. The entire country had only 1,500 prohibition agents — so few that “the statistics made each prohibition agent responsible for 12 miles of border, 2000 square miles of interior and 70,000 people,” noted historian Andrew Sinclair. Agents were exempt from civil service examinations and attracted so many grafters and ex-convicts that “corruption in the Prohibition Bureau became a national scandal,” wrote Sinclair in his 1962 history Prohibition: The Era of Excess.

Canada deserves a full debate about marijuana.  But it serves no purpose to malign prohibition per es as simple-minded.  Most people are law-abiding.  When the law prohibits pot or liquor, millions are content to do as they’re told.

Now, about those trans fats.

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