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Last Updated: Monday, 20 March 2006, 12:58 GMT
Canada's growing marijuana problem
By Becky Branford
BBC News

Marijuana cigarette
Nearly half of Canadians admit to smoking marijuana at least once
Frank proudly surveys the large log cabin he constructed himself, on a two-acre plot of aromatic evergreen forest he now owns.

"All this," he says, "was built on marijuana."

Over four years, Frank - not his real name - tended a patch of marijuana plants in a forest clearing about 45 minutes' walk from where his cabin now stands.

He regularly pooled his harvests with those of several other growers in the small British Columbia (BC) town in which he lives, to sell wholesale to young men from just across the border in the US state of Idaho.

Frank says he made hundreds of thousands of Canadian dollars before hurriedly leaving the business when his American buyers were arrested.

But tens of thousands of illegal "grow-ops" remain in Canada. Estimates suggest marijuana may generate up to C$7bn (3.5bn; US$6.1bn) a year in BC, the sunny province thought to be at the heart of the industry.

Canada's new Conservative government says people like Frank are a menace to society, putting drugs on the streets and fuelling organised crime - and it has vowed to get tough on them.

But critics accuse the government of being wilfully blind to the historic failures of law enforcement, and ignoring public opinion and the findings of expert committees in favour of a policy of demonising marijuana - a policy they liken to the short-lived Prohibition of alcohol in 1920s and 30s America.

Vietnam roots

Growing marijuana in BC's thinly populated and rugged interior, Frank was continuing a tradition - of sorts - said to have arrived with some 50,000 young American men seeking to avoid being drafted to fight in the Vietnam war.

It's politics that's stopping a change in drug laws and not logic
Lawyer and policy expert Eugene Oscapella
But over the intervening decades, the industry has changed. Most of today's grow-ops are indoors, using artificial light to produce stronger strains of cannabis.

The industry has also grown. The Canadian statistics agency reports that in 2004 there were more than 8,000 cultivation offences recorded - up from 3,400 in 1994.

Experts deduce that the true number of grow-ops is much greater, as even large seizures seem to have little effect on the price of marijuana.

The federal police reported in 2002 that the cultivation industry had reached levels "that could be deemed epidemic in the provinces of BC, Ontario, and Quebec" - and they also warn that almost every large-scale operation these days is linked in varying degrees to organised crime.

"Cannabis is the biggest issue facing law enforcement now," says Inspector Paul Nadeau of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

He says smugglers have access to "transport vehicles, planes, helicopters. The sky's the limit".

He calls for greater deterrents, pointing out that in BC only about 10% of those convicted of growing marijuana face jail terms (the figure is higher in other provinces), with most offenders getting a fine or suspended sentence.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police at a ceremony for four colleagues killed while investigating a grow-operation in March 2005
The Canadian police: 'We are drowning in the numbers'
He says judges facing a backlog of cases in the courts "have to be given the means to deal with the problem... We are drowning in the numbers."

In contrast to the previous Liberal administration, which sought unsuccessfully to reduce penalties for possession, the new Conservative government pledged in its election manifesto to steer Canada "off the road to drug legalisation".

It said it would ensure mandatory minimum prison sentences and large fines for serious drug offenders, including growers.

Consumption rises

But critics of tougher law enforcement insist it is doomed to failure - and has failed.

"I don't advocate smoking anything - I think it's bad for you!" says Stephen Easton, professor of economics and a senior scholar at the conservative Fraser Institute think tank, who has studied the industry in detail.

He and other pro-reform experts accept that there is growing evidence of a link between heavy cannabis use and mental health problems in some people.

Parents and police officers agree the last thing we need is more drugs on the streets
Patrick Charette
Justice ministry
"But has criminalisation been successful in deterring consumption? The answer is surely no," he says.

In 2004, the Canadian Addiction Survey found 44.5% of Canadians reported using cannabis at least once - up from 23.3% in 1989.

The proportion of respondents who admitted to using cannabis in the previous year was 14.1% - compared with 9.7% of Britons and 10.6% of Americans in equivalent surveys.

Instead of spending half a billion Canadian dollars each year tackling illicit drug use, Professor Easton argues, federal authorities have an alternative: "Tax and trade it like any other normal commodity."

In fact, several government committees tasked with evaluating Canada's drug laws have recommended legalisation of marijuana - from the 1972 Le Dain Commission to the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs which reported in September 2002.

A recent survey suggested 51% of Canadians supported decriminalisation of marijuana.

Prohibition 'empires'

"There have been studies galore in Canada and elsewhere looking at this issue - it's politics that's stopping [a change in drug laws] and not logic," says lawyer Eugene Oscapella, a founding member of the independent Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy.

"It's hypocrisy, it's cowardice," he says - a charge the justice ministry declined to comment on.

Indoor marijuana grow-operation (Image: RCMP)
Most marijuana cultivation now takes place indoors, under lights (image: RCMP)
Mr Oscapella suggests Canada is fearful of crossing the US government, which he says has threatened to slow bilateral trade worth about US$1bn per day.

Some 85% of marijuana grown in BC is estimated to be exported into the US, though total border seizures of marijuana only amount to about 3% of that discovered entering the US from Mexico.

Mr Oscapella also argues that some sectors have an interest in maintaining what he calls the "Prohibition" on marijuana in Canada.

"You have to look at Prohibition as an industry: the crime-control industry. There are empires built around it - not only organised crime, but government bureaucracies, police departments, privatised prison industries in the US, pharmaceutical and drug-testing companies. These empires thrive on Prohibition."

He says he fears tougher enforcement will lead to a burgeoning prison population, but have little impact on the illicit industry.

Meanwhile, critics charge, the proceeds of the industry continue to feed what a recent editorial in the Vancouver Sun newspaper called the "monster" of organised crime.

As early as 2000, RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli warned this "monster" was threatening to destabilise Canada's parliamentary system.

'Pay the price'

But police insist tougher sentences, not legalisation of cannabis, is what is needed.

This argument is echoed by the new Ottawa government, though it says it will take advice before formulating a detailed drugs policy. It argues any resultant increase in spending on tougher law enforcement will be offset by lower spending on the social problems caused by drug abuse.

"Parents and police officers agree the last thing we need is more drugs on the streets," says the Ministry of Justice's acting communications director Patrick Charette.

"There has been a huge inconsistency in the application of the law - whether you're caught with a joint in a small rural community or downtown Vancouver, you'll get [a different] reaction from the police...

"Rather than simplifying and having a more relaxed approach, we think you need to enforce the law and make sure those caught with drugs and producing drugs pay the price."

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