Thursday, February 10, 2011

Three Strikes, Perhaps?

Source: CTV News: Liberals 'flip-flopped' on Crime Bill: Nicholson

For a third time, the Harper Conservatives are attempting to push through their much lauded (and increasingly much maligned) 'tough on crime' legislation. Previous attempts to push through this legislation resulted in a few different outcomes:

1.) The bill passed through the House of Commons, with the support of a weakened and still 'election scared' Liberal Party, though it was gutted and rejected in the Senate.

2.) The bill died in committee when Harper prorogued Parliament.

And now it's come back, with the Liberal ability to block it in the Senate gone thanks to a new Conservative majority in the Upper House (In fact, the bill originated in the Senate this time around and now only needs to be passed through the House of Commons); but now the Liberals seem to have found a backbone and are refusing to pass this legislation through the House of Commons.

Now, there's good things and there are BAD, BAD, BAD things about this piece of legislation.

The only sole good part of this legislation revolves around the reclassification of date rape drugs; which, in all honesty, we know are a bad thing in an of themselves. As such, this is a good idea to crack down on people who are producing and supplying these types of drugs which lead to sexual crimes committed against people, namely women; though, in fairness, I have heard of the rare case of 'date rape' drugs being used against men, but they are clearly not the primary target of such drugs.

And the bad things.

The Harper Government is cracking down massively on marijuana possession, in such a way that possession of a small number of plants (in which no lawyer could argue that possession of such proves intent to sell or traffic) would lead to jail time and other punishments for those found to be in possession of these plants.

Furthermore, increasing jail time seems to be a Harper Government standard. After all, prisons are one of the few departments in Ottawa that can gloat about their budgets being increased since the Conservatives came to power. There's also been increased talk over the creation of new prisons, expansions on others, and even rumours that a 'super-max' facility could be developed at some point to house Canadian criminals.

And the Harper Conservatives want to make a minimal amount of marijuana an offence that will send more people into prisons, at a time when Canada is already facing a large amount of prison over crowdings and shortages of space.

The solution to prison over crowding is not to build more prisons, but to prevent more people from going there in the first place.

And as surprising as this may sound, one of the planks in achieving such a thing can be done through decriminalization of marijuana.

I'd like to put a preface here: Personally, I've never indulged in recreational drug use. So, before cries of 'oh, you just want to support your own habit' begin to be tossed around, keep in mind that I don't actually smoke or use marijuana in any of its forms, or any other illegal drug for that matter.

The Harper Government is talking about getting tough on crime, especially gangs, and says that by making smaller amounts of marijuana an arrestable offense which will result in prison time they are being tough on crime.

Well, to borrow a phrase from Michael Igatieff, "they're being dumb on crime."

If Harper was serious about removing the profits of drug trafficking from gangs, the easiest way to do that is to make the very thing they sell less of a taboo.

Look to Atlantic City in the 1920s.

During the Prohibition Era in the USA, illegal alcohol flowed in the streets regardless of government attempts to prevent it from doing so. Furthermore, 'gangsters' came of age in this time period because the sale of alcohol provided an incredible source of income for them.

There will always be a market for alcohol, which is a lesson the American Government eventually realized when they turned their back on the 'Noble Experiment'.

As such, I would argue that there will always be a market for drugs like marijuana. The obvious solution, taking cues from prohibition, then is to decriminalize marijuana and establish a government monopoly around selling it.

Now, this is only a partial solution.

I'm not that naive to claim that decriminalizing marijuana will completely stem criminals from attempting to sell it as well...

But, with a government backed producer who is consistently undercutting these unsavoury individuals it is one way of restricting their income, with regards to marijuana. And yes, there will be other people, who aren't criminals, who will grow and sell their own plants but as long as those profits aren't being used to support crime, why should we be worried about it?

Now obviously, this is only one small step, given that other drugs would still be sold by these criminal groups.

I can't say I'm in favour of mass decriminalization for all drugs; after all, 'hard drugs' like crystal meth and heroin have a significant life impact on their users, much more so than I could say with my limited knowledge of marijuana.

Of course, we could approach this issue with the candour of John Stuart Mill's Harm Principle. For those unfamiliar, it's a simple concept that says as long as someone engages in an activity that does no harm to anyone else, they should not be restricted from doing it.

Drug use is a complex though; after all, if a mother is emotionally distraught that her child is doing drugs, does that count as harm?

As such, since this isn't a philosophical blog (although some days it may feel that way), we'd best leave the harm principle alone and look more at the political aspects.

The Harper crime initiatives have been reason for concern. Since they were announced, Vic Towes has been out there suggesting that all the government's bills on this matter wouldn't cost Canadians more than $2 billion dollars.

At the same time, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page (who has to have the hardest job in Ottawa) continues to question government figures by stating that just one of the bills presented will cost $5 billion dollars.

Let me restate that.

The Conservatives have a COLLECTION of bills which they claim will only cost $2 billion dollars. But the PBO says that just ONE of these bills will cost Canadians $5 billion dollars.

Given the Harper Government's track record on budgetary issues, I have to say I'm more inclined to believe Mr. Page's figures.

I'm worried I may have rambled a bit, so let me attempt to reel this back in and close this post down.

Effectively, Canadians are facing a very interesting question in regards to the the idea of being 'tough on crime' and continuing the 'war on drugs.'

History has shown that attempting to ban something will only cause criminals to profit from selling the banned substance, and that the market demand for it will not disappear. Rather than attempting to continue a failed policy that has never worked, the Canadian Government should be taking steps to change our drug policies to actually take money away from criminals.

After all, this bill seems to punish those who are indulging in marijuana use for their own pleasure, not those who are producing it to sell. As such, all this bill really does is take customers off the street, which in turn will lead to those criminals who sell the stuff to simply find new customers.

The decriminalization of marijuana is not a slippery slope; it will not, and should not, lead to the decriminalization of harder drugs, but it should be the first step in removing the 'taboo' and 'mysterious intrigue' that drug culture provides for some people.

Not to mention that marijuana sold by the state does two things: Firstly, it ensures that the drug being sold is safe and hasn't been mixed with anything or grown in conditions that can endanger the life of the user.

Secondly, it would produce a good tax revenue source for the government, much in the same way that cigarettes and alcohol do now.

Yes, we do have a commitment to make sure that drugs don't find their way to children. Yes, we have a commitment to make sure that those addicted to the stuff find the help they need to beat their addictions.

But we also have a commitment to change with the times and adapt to the lifestyles that evolve around us.

As such, it might be time for Canada's own 'noble experiment' in regards to marijuana illegality to come to an end.

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