Why these police officers and lawyers want to end the war on drugs

In Feature Stories by MichaelS

Much of the relief provided by medical marijuana isn’t physical, but ethical: freeing people not only from needing to hide their healthcare, but also worrying about where their medicine originated.

At least, that’s the idea. But what if laws against non-medicinal use were what made marijuana such a powerful criminal currency, while licensing trends were actually driving medicinal users back into that illicit system?

And what if it were law enforcement professionals saying so?

“[Prohibition] provides more opportunities for organized crime,” says William VanderGraaf. “It empowers people in our society who decide the laws make no sense, and makes it more dangerous for the police.”

It’s a compelling argument – especially coming from a 29-year veteran of the Winnipeg Police Service.

“I’ve come to the conclusion, watching all the unintended consequences of prohibition – drive-by shootings, fighting over the control of substances, innocent people gunned down by mistake – the only way to combat that is to take drugs off our streets.” And the only way to do that, VanderGraaf says, is to legalize it fully.

It’s this belief that inspired him to join Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a coalition of mostly former – and some current – police officers and prosecutors across North America who seek an end to the drug war. And, while he says his main concern has always been “to argue for the legalization of all drugs,” his experience as a medicinal user and provider in the last decade has strengthened his conviction.

That’s moral conviction, not legal – though police did seize 20 plants he had grown for himself and his family in 2007. VanderGraaf relies on marijuana to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; his daughter uses it to treat symptoms of Takayasu’s Arteritis; and until his death, his father found marijuana cookies brought relief from symptoms of ALS and dementia. For his garden, VanderGraaf received a suspended sentence, and has been licensed by Health Canada since 2011.

Yet he’s opposed to the current medical licensing system. “The whole problem with medical marijuana [is that] it’s created a situation where only medical users think they should have availability.”

Since Health Canada began providing a list of ailments for which marijuana is authorized, anyone whose marijuana-treatable conditions or concerns didn’t make the cut has been left with few safe options for medicine. According to planned changes, by 2014 doctors will be allowed to prescribe marijuana – but this could actually present a greater barrier. Not everyone has access to a doctor willing to discuss marijuana, let alone prescribe it. (Consider that as recently as June 2013, the Canadian Medical Association objected to “[a]sking physicians to prescribe drugs that have not been clinically tested,” and made the exaggerated claim that marijuana has “a huge potential to cause harm.”)

The changes will also be saddled with a prohibition on growing. Medical marijuana users will then have to get their medicine from licensed producers, selected by Health Canada.

“People who have been growing for 10 years are suddenly going to be criminals?” says VanderGraaf. “Medical users who can’t grow will simply go to illegal sources willing to take the risk.” And, he says, this will further complicate things on the street. “I’ve seen users with medical licenses yanked out of their car, slammed against the hood, then they show their license, and [police] have to let them go and apologize. [Or] he says, ‘I’ve got a license,’ they don’t care, they throw him down on the ground anyway.”

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Now working privately as a defense lawyer, former federal prosecutor Randie Long says his “involvement in the drug war” helped him see the corrosive effect of prohibition.

Long“Contrary to what TV puts out, we never dealt with the big guys,” he tells me. “The people I saw were people selling to one another, people smoking a joint outside the door of the bar, people who had a grow-op in their backyard… There was a ritual, almost theatre. The prosecution said the appropriate things, the defense said the appropriate things, and the judge did what he was supposed to do.”

And, he says, no good came of any of it. “People come in with contempt for the system, and walk out saying, ‘This is bullshit. And you all know it’s bullshit.’”

But, given that license are now available, is this a problem for medicinal users?

“I’ve no doubt these people are in the court system,” he says. “To say it’s a medical application is a tough thing, because of the system that’s been created: having to go to your doctor, having a doctor willing to have that conversation – and then agree – and then go through the regulatory hoops. [But] I’ve had judges say, ‘Unless you’ve got a license, don’t even make the argument.’”

Given the drain on public resources – and continued dangers of ostensibly legal use – one might expect anti-prohibition activists to welcome a recent proposal to scale back policing resources devoted to marijuana possession.

At their August conference in Winnipeg, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police put forward [PDF] a proposal to “expand the range of enforcement options” for marijuana possession by allowing officers to issue tickets instead of conducting arrests, as they already would for public drinking. Though when asked, the CACP insists that they do not support any form of decriminalization.

Instead, the stated goal is to free up resources that would otherwise be devoted to arrests. Given this, I ask whether medical licensing – a limited decriminalization in effect, if not in name – has also relieved some budgetary bulk. An unattributed email reply relayed by communications representative Tim Smith states, “The medical marihuana [sic] process has not freed up police resources. There are some persons who are licensed to possess marihuana for medical purposes who flaunt their legal status and will smoke their medicinal marihuana in public places. […] This requires the officer to investigate and ‘interface’ with the person.”

VanderGraaf isn’t impressed. “It gives officers more power over citizens, and does nothing to stop the production and flow of drugs,” he says. “Are they going to pick and choose who they criminalize?”

In fact, there’s reason to believe the “ticketing option” could increase the number of marijuana consumers – medicinal and otherwise – cast in the theatre of punishment described by Long. Tickets will take less time for police but still result in a summons to court and, if convicted, a criminal record for those in possession.

Long attributes the reluctance to decriminalize partially to financial factors: federal prosecutors, unlike provincial counterparts, are paid by the hour, and marijuana prosecutions are “low-hanging fruit.”

Still, he thinks the contrast between prohibition rhetoric and prohibition reality is increasingly jarring, even to people within the system. “There are a lot of people in their 50s and 60s who now talk about the analgesic properties – ‘my aching back’ and whatever, and how they simply have a quick puff, how effective that is.”

And take note: these are lawyers he’s talking about. “With people of a certain age, it’s an easy conversation to have.”

SmithABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Smith is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has been printed in the Toronto Star, NOW magazine, spacing magazine, and other fine publications. Carefully selected facets of his personality are projected through the Twitter handle @SousLePave. As of publication date his favourite word is “orrery.” He loves you just the way you are but wishes you’d call more.