City council calls for pot regulation

Unanimous motion follows Stop the Violence B.C. presentation

MARIJUANA prohibition has "failed miserably," says the City of North Vancouver's council, who voted unanimously Monday to call for decriminalization and regulation of the drug.

"It's an issue whose time has come," said Coun. Rod Clark. "It's a fundamental question for our society. It's now time to embrace a science-based solution, one that recognizes the failures of prohibition and the restrictions of the past."

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The vote followed an extensive presentation from Dr. Evan Wood, a practising St. Paul's Hospital physician as well a professor and researcher at the UBC faculty of medicine. He was invited to council to represent the Stop the Violence B.C. coalition.

"We include public health physicians, experts in addiction, criminology, other academic disciplines from across B.C.'s largest universities, current and former police officers, former Supreme Court

justices, federal prosecutors and former attorneys general," Wood said. The coalition also lists several former chief coroners, several former mayors of Vancouver, a former premier and a senator among its members.

Wood opened by displaying a number of recent newspaper headlines linking the drug trade to deadly violence in the Lower Mainland.

"I could have just as easily shown headlines from the North Shore, with regular grow-op busts and other activities on the North Shore. We've all seen headlines like this," he said.

According to the Fraser Institute, marijuana cultivation in B.C. is worth about $7 billion annually. Wood displayed several graphs showing the price and potency of various substances over the past three decades, during which the annual American drug control budget has swollen from $3.68 billion to more than $23 billion.

"What you would expect is that the price would go up as you reduce supply and the potency would go down because you're cutting off the supply," Wood said.

"What you see is the exact opposite. The price of heroin has gone down over time, and not because the quality of the heroin is worse, actually the potency has gone up dramatically. This is U.S. government data. With marijuana the story is the same: the price has gone down dramatically because of how exceptional the organized crime groups have been at distributing the drug and the potency has gone up exceptionally. Simply put, the war on drugs has not achieved its stated objectives."

What's more, Wood said, a "very rigorous" systematic review conducted by senior researchers at UBC and McMaster University concluded that "there is no study that has ever concluded that drug law enforcement reduces violence and there is a whole literature describing how taking out key players from the drug market creates economic opportunity. In the absence of lawyers and other ways to resolve disputes, you have turf wars and people fighting to gain market share."

Wood said he himself has treated patients with gunshot wounds following drug-related disputes. He went on to show pro-decriminalization editorials from the Vancouver Sun, the Province, Business in Vancouver, the Globe and Mail and the North Shore News. His presentation was warmly received at the Vancouver Board of Trade, he said.

Several polls indicate a large majority of B.C. residents support decriminalization, even among Conservative voters. "I'm unaware of any other issue that 77 per cent of British Columbians can agree on. The politicians have clearly fallen behind on this issue," Wood said.

As well as highlighting the failure of prohibition to reduce the supply of marijuana, Wood said his group is "trying to help the public understand that all of the issues related to the marijuana industry - the grow-ops, the hydro theft, the home invasions, the gang activity - all of this is an expected natural consequence of marijuana prohibition, just as those things emerged during alcohol prohibition."

Wood described Stop the Violence as "a very strong anti-drug group," but said they do not advocate full legalization that would lead to advertising and corporate involvement. Instead, he said there is a "sweet spot."

"There is a middle ground, where we have had great success with alcohol and tobacco. The success is because of the regulatory tools we can employ because tobacco is legal." Taxation, public education and a range of other regulations like advertising restrictions have been effective at pushing down tobacco use, Wood said.

"We have a violent, unregulated market whose goal is profit. That's why it's sold at high schools. Regulatory tools can move us to a regulated market whose goal is public health."

Coun. Guy Heywood asked Wood what decriminalization would look like in practice, and how it would affect Canada's relationship with the United States.

"It can't happen where the law changes and it's just like liquor stores and available everywhere and that's the new reality," Wood replied. "We need to go forward with very controlled pilot studies looking at the impacts in terms of public nuisance, who's using it, money laundering and other opportunities that may emerge. . . . In the United States they are actually way ahead of us now. Sixteen states have legalized medical marijuana, which is a separate issue. Fourteen states have decriminalized marijuana."

To take the "what if" argument to its natural conclusion, said Wood, "implies that we are somehow protecting ourselves by giving organized crime $7 billion a year and allowing them to import cocaine and guns with that."

Coun. Craig Keating asked Wood for his views on the recent Conservative crime bill.

The doctor said his group is avoiding taking any partisan positions, and added that there are items in the wide-ranging omnibus bill that most people can support. But Wood did speak in general terms about mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession.

"Economists and businesspeople are speaking up about this issue increasingly because they understand markets. . . . Let's say you get rid of half of the growops by locking up people for a mandatory minimum sentence, at a cost to the taxpayer. That would have the perverse effect of driving up the price and incentivising more people to get into the market. That's why mandatory minimum sentences have been so ineffective and harmful to communities and harmful to taxpayers. In California they spend more on prisons than they do on post-secondary education. It's been a total disaster there."

Mayor Darrell Mussatto praised Wood as an "extremely well respected" scholar and thanked him for his presentation. "Making decisions based on evidence is the way we need to go, not on emotion or past experiences," Mussatto said. "We need to ask these tough questions and I put my name forward to sign with the coalition as mayor of the city."

Council unanimously endorsed a suggested Stop the Violence motion and will forward it to the Union of B.C. Municipalities.

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