Though recent polls suggest that two thirds of Canadians would like to see marijuana decriminalized, Alberta’s provincial government won’t be changing their laws anytime soon.
When police chiefs from across Canada met earlier this year in Winnipeg to discuss easing enforcement for marijuana-related crimes, Alberta Premier Allison Redford and Calgary police chief Rick Hanson told the media that despite public opinion, the provincial government still viewed marijuana as “a harmful gateway drug” and that changing the laws would pose a risk to the safety of Alberta’s communities.
Keith Fagin, local long-time marijuana activist and regional director of the Prairies for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, disagrees with Redford and Hanson, and said that continuing to uphold tough penalties actually does more harm than good.
“With the way the system is now, the black market is benefiting,” said Fagin in a telephone interview.
“In 2011, 70 per cent of all drug arrests were for cannabis – of that, 54 per cent were for small possession – You’re giving people criminal records for having a bit of a plant? It’s a vast quantity of energy and money that is going to waste,” he said.
According to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, those who are found to be in possession of 30 grams of cannabis or less can face fines of up to $1,000 and six months in jail. Those in possession of more than 30 grams can face a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
The proposed change to legislation, which Premier Redford did not support, would see that current penalties of fines and prison sentences be replaced with less expensive tickets which wouldn’t affect a person’s criminal record. Fagin, however, would like to see cannabis completely legalized.
Legalization has been on his agenda for well over 10 years, since 2002 when the Senate committee suggested it in a public policy summary.
The summary stated that, contrary to what Fagin said his generation had been told, “Cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public health issue.”
“It’s the lies behind Reefer Madness that you’re going to try and fly off buildings [if you use cannabis] that parents and I bought into, and unfortunately a few people are still buying into it. It’s nonsense,” said Fagin, referring to the 1936 film that warned parents of the alleged dangers of cannabis use.
“We want to keep it away from our youth and educate people with the truth. Take the money away from prohibition and put it into education and health care instead,” he said.
Fagin has encouraged people through his website, calgary420.ca, to sign the Liberal Party of Canada’s petition to end marijuana prohibition and legalize the drug for good.
According to the Liberal Party’s website, marijuana prohibition has cost Canadian taxpayers over $500 million since 2006.
While the Liberal Party’s proposed changes would take place on a federal level and would likely take years to come into effect if approved, Fagin wants to see changes take place on a provincial level first.
“They keep telling us it’s a federal law and there’s nothing they can do about it, but the provincial government has told the feds to ‘stuff it’ before so I know they can do it again,” said Fagin, referring to the provincial Alberta’s response to the Long Gun Registry in the early 2000’s.
“It’s a fear of losing votes and being labeled soft on crime that’s keeping them from doing it,” he said.
Dieter Krause, a Calgary resident and cannabis user, is frustrated with the current system and would like to see regulations disappear entirely.
“Drug enforcement costs are in the billions of dollars and our government would have to give up all that tax money, or find a new scapegoat, if those funds weren’t being allocated towards police budgets,” said Krause in a face-to-face interview.
“It’s a plant that grows in the ground, so it’s not within our rights to regulate. It should be treated like every other crop.”
Originally from Vancouver, Krause is used to a slightly more relaxed environment when it comes to cannabis consumption, and while the drug has yet to be decriminalized or legalized in B.C., Krause says that most Vancouverites are “much more relaxed” about cannabis than Calgarians.