For many years, the default approach to marijuana has been prohibition. That this has not worked well is beyond doubt and the time has come to find a better approach. The answer, according to the group Sensible B.C., is to decriminalize simple possession and redirect policing budgets to more effective pursuits.
The reasons for decriminalizing pot possession are simple. First are the cost savings as we spend less to prosecute people for simple possession. In B.C., the number of possession charges has more than doubled since 2005 — we should spend scarce budget dollars more effectively. Public safety would be improved if police officers and resources were focussed on real crime instead of charging people with possession.
Public opinion shows most British Columbians agree that possession of cannabis should not lead to a criminal record; two-thirds support marijuana being legally taxed and regulated. These views are consistent in all regions of the province and among voters for all parties.
Sensible B.C. is working to decriminalize the simple possession of cannabis through the Sensible Policing Act (sensiblebc.ca/the-sensible-policing-act/). The proposal would amend the Police Act to redirect all police from taking action in cases of simple cannabis possession by adults.
Some may question the need for a change in legislation, but much of what we think about cannabis in B.C. is misconceived. Many think marijuana possession is “basically legal” in BC. Not true: B.C. has Canada’s highest rate of police-reported incidents for simple possession of marijuana and B.C. police spend about twice as much time and money as the national average on dealing with marijuana possession. And the rate of possession charges in BC has been steadily increasing for years, as has the cost to taxpayers.
The need for the Sensible Policing Act is made all the clearer when we consider who is in favour of the change. We start with the Health Officers Council of B.C., who state, “It is our view that all psychoactive substances, including cannabis, alcohol, and tobacco should be regulated from a public health perspective.”
Supporters also include Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), four former B.C. attorneys general. Even the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police finds current laws unworkable. This month, the association asked for the power to hand out tickets for illegal possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Sensible B.C. is spearheading a referendum initiative that starts Sept. 9. The goal is to gather 400,000 signatures. If they accomplish this, there will be a referendum in 2014 to decriminalize marijuana possession.
Dr. Paul Martiquet is Medical Health Officer for Rural Vancouver Coastal Health.