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Canada's Tolerance On Marijuana Fades


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The marijuana harvest in British Columbia generated about 7 billion Canadian dollars ( US$7 billion ) last year, making it one of the most lucrative industries in the Canadian province. But after a string of high-profile arrests and slayings -- including the execution-style murders of six people in October -- the easygoing attitude that has long surrounded marijuana in Canada is under attack.

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is calling for a cultural shift, to be enforced by what his political opponents are calling an American-style war on drugs. He has introduced legislation that would set mandatory minimum jail sentences for marijuana growers and traffickers, and he is seeking more money for enforcement and prosecution.

"What we are up against...is a culture that since the 1960s has at the minimum not discouraged drug use and often romanticized it or made it cool, made it acceptable," Mr. Harper said when he announced his plan in October. The bill is expected to come up for legislative debate next month. Canadians use marijuana more than any country in Europe, Asia or Latin America, according to the United Nations' 2007 World Drug Report. Only people in Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, Ghana and Zambia smoke more. That news in July elicited the headline "The True North Stoned and Free," in the typically staid Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail. A poll last summer by the Angus Reid Global Monitor found that 55% of Canadians think marijuana should be legalized.

Starting with the efforts of a group of American war resisters in the 1970s, British Columbia has been at the forefront of Canada's marijuana industry. By 2000, marijuana was grown in 17,500 homes in the province, according to a study by Simon Fraser University economist Steve Easton. In 2001, the Canadian government showed a tolerance for cannabis by becoming the first nation to regulate its consumption for medical reasons. In 2004, the government, headed then by Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, reintroduced a bill to decriminalize possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana, making it subject to a fine but leaving no criminal record. The bill never came up for a vote.

In Vancouver, meanwhile, large profits, lenient laws, lax enforcement and an established smuggling and money-laundering infrastructure attracted organized crime. Though greater Vancouver remains one of the safest metropolitan areas in North America, at least 19 fatal drug-related shootings took place there last year. A double murder occurred at a Chinese restaurant in August, and two of the six people slain in October in an apartment building were innocent bystanders. In November, a reputed gang leader was shot outside his C$5 million mansion.

And then, early on Dec. 4, in an arrest that highlighted Vancouver's role as a base for the global distribution of illicit drugs, police arrested Yong Long Ye, alleging he imported drugs from the U.S. and Southeast Asia and exported it across North America and to Australia.

One of Mr. Ye's alleged associates operated a greenhouse on the outskirts of Vancouver that was jammed with 9,000 marijuana plants. Pat Fogarty, a police officer who oversaw the investigation, described being in the greenhouse as "like walking in a forest."

Prime Minister Harper's bill proposes to beef up sentences for drug traffickers at all levels, but it is the stiff penalties for small marijuana growers not involved with organized crime that have raised concern in Vancouver. "When I think about drug problems, I don't think about marijuana," said Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, who favors legalizing the drug. "In my experience, the people who smoke marijuana are not a problem for public order or crime."
Canadian judges can use their discretion about whether to sentence drug offenders to prison. Mr. Easton's research showed that a small fraction of them serve jail time and that the average sentence of those who do is about four months.

Mr. Harper's bill proposes a six-month mandatory sentence for growing as little as one marijuana plant for the purposes of trafficking. Senator Larry Campbell, a former Vancouver mayor and former drug officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, disagrees with Mr. Harper's approach, and he supports legalization. Mr. Campbell said the high rate of jail and recidivism in the U.S. is proof that the war on drugs to the south has failed.

"Harper is looking for a wedge issue, and he's found it," Mr. Campbell said. "It makes no sense, but it makes good politics."

Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2008 Dow Jones & Company,Inc
Contact: wsj.ltrs@wsj.com
Website: Business Financial News, Business News Online & Personal Finance News at WSJ.com - WSJ.com
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