Monday, January 16, 2006

VANCOUVER -- The familiar odour on Granville Street in downtown Vancouver and the furtive $20 transactions are unlikely to be affected by a Conservative election victory, but on a broader scale, a reduction in marijuana possession penalties now appears extremely unlikely.

If elected Jan. 23, the Conservatives will not decriminalize marijuana, a party spokesman confirmed, and they will not reintroduce a Liberal bill that would fine people caught possessing less than 15 grams of cannabis, instead of imposing criminal sentences.

The Conservatives are also promising to impose mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted in marijuana grow operations.

Anyone caught with more than three kilograms of marijuana (which has a street value of about $20,000, based on a price of $6,600 a kilogram, according to the testimony of police in B.C. courts), would receive a sentence of at least two years in prison.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is relieved that the Liberal bill is unlikely to become law.

"We would rather have no law than this law," said Halifax Deputy Chief Chris McNeil, who is the chair of its drug-abuse committee.

The organization is not opposed to fines for possessing small amounts of marijuana, but Mr. McNeil said the decision whether to lay charges must remain at the discretion of the police.

He said 15 grams, which has a street value of about $150, is too much to be subject to a fine.

Mr. McNeil added that the proposed legislation did not send the proper message to young people about the dangers of marijuana.

While there may be a general perception that police do not enforce some marijuana laws, there were more than 48,000 possession charges in 2004, up 15 per cent from the previous year.

According to Statistics Canada, possession offences made up 70 per cent of all marijuana charges.

The rate of possession charges was by far the highest in British Columbia in 2004.

There were 309 charges per 100,000 people, twice

the national average.

John Conroy, a defence lawyer in Abbotsford who has represented clients in a number of high-profile challenges to the marijuana laws, described the continuing prohibition as "a boon for police forces. It keeps many police officers employed."

Police officers often say they smell unburned marijuana and "use it as an excuse to get in your car, to look for other things," he said.

Mr. McNeil denied that police use the potential presence of marijuana to target certain groups. "I simply do not accept that," he said.

There have been some cases in B.C. and other provinces that call into question the way police resources are sometimes used in marijuana investigations.

The Ontario Court of Appeal threw out trafficking charges against a Hamilton teenager in 2001 who was pressured by two undercover officers to sell $10 of marijuana at a Marilyn Manson concert. The officers, who had dressed up as goths and who the defendant said looked liked "Kiss fans," had engaged in an abuse of process, the court said.

Last year, a B.C. provincial court judge acquitted a well-known Wreck Beach vendor who sold "crazy cookies" for $20 to undercover officers wearing bathing suits at the nude beach.

A federal government analyst admitted he could not determine whether the cookies contained a prohibited substance or non-viable hempseed, which led to the acquittal of the woman, who was represented by Mr. Conroy.

"I confess to being quite pessimistic" about any relaxation of the marijuana possession laws, Mr. Conroy said.

The defence lawyer said there is still a "demonization" of marijuana.

If the dangers of marijuana were as great as stated by some politicians and police officers, "you would think we would have a lot more depravity in the country than we do," Mr. Conroy said.

The lawyer, who has defended clients in more than 150 grow-op cases, also challenged police assertions about the potential for violence at marijuana operations.

"I have not had one case of violence, except maybe by the police," Mr. Conroy said.

The B.C. Court of Appeal has also ruled that it is generally a safer practice for police officers to announce their presence before entering a home in a marijuana raid.

An Ontario judge made a similar ruling last year after a trial where a provincial police officer admitted he had encountered violence in only two of 900 raids.