Brewery vs. grow op: Why the distinction?

Thursday, January 15, 2004

  • Sophisticated grow-op inside beer vats

    Sophisticated grow-op inside beer vats

Written by Scott Piatkowski

As one who has made a conscious personal choice not to indulge in either substance, it has always puzzled and amused me to observe the stark contrast between how our society deals with alcohol and how it deals with marijuana. That double standard was never more apparent than last week, when more than a hundred police officers raided a huge marijuana grow operation located in the former Molson brewery facility in Barrie (with over 30,000 pot plants seized, it was reportedly “the largest and most sophisticated marijuana operation in Canadian history”).

I waited in vain for someone else to point out the great irony of the situation. As long as the building was being used to produce one type of intoxicant – alcohol -- its proprietors were considered model corporate citizens. A park, a major street and at least one sports facility in the city were named after the company, and governments at all levels were happy to share in the company’s profits, through the collection of property, sales and alcohol taxes. But, when another group of entrepreneurs set up shop to produce another type of intoxicant – marijuana -- they were labeled as criminals and found themselves arrested, while their product and equipment were seized.

So, why the distinction between different forms of intoxicants being manufactured in the same beer vats? Clearly our governments and law enforcement officials believe that alcohol is a good thing, while marijuana is a bad thing. The reality is a little more complicated. The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) calls the negative health effects of moderate marijuana use “minimal.” A 2002 Senate committee report indicated that “scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public health issue.” Eugene Oscapella, executive director of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy argues that “our current drug laws fund organized crime, they fund terrorist groups around the world.” Our policies that we build around this drug are far more harmful than the drug itself.”

Pot wasn’t even illegal in Canada until 1923, when it was included in the list of substances banned under the Opium and Drug Act, although no charges were laid until 1937, and charges did exceed 100 per year until 1966. That law was replaced by the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in 1997, but the penalties for possessing marijuana remained in place. In 2001, Parliament passed a law legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes only (there are currently just under 600 Canadians who have the government’s permission to smoke pot). And, in one of the few legislative initiatives on which Jean Chretien and Paul Martin agree, the federal government is promising to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of pot (and to think it’s only been thirty years since the LeDain Commission first called for such a change). It would still be illegal, but in the same way that jaywalking and parking at an expired metre are illegal. The penalty would be more akin to a traffic ticket than to the criminal sanctions that are currently aimed at recreational users.

According to an estimate by the CMA, 1.7 million Canadians smoke marijuana recreationally, so prohibition doesn’t appear to be achieving its objective. Approximately 600,000 Canadians have criminal records for marijuana possession, and as many as 30,000 people have their names added to that list every year. The CMA supports decriminalization, noting that “a criminal record effectively bars young people from getting jobs and opportunities, including getting into medical school”. Even the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police advocates decriminalization, saying prosecuting people for small amounts ties up scarce resources (like those hundred officers involved in the raid at the brewery). Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino, traditionally a staunch hardliner on “law and order” issues, told the Senate committee that he believed in “not having to burden the criminal justice system on certain offences involving very small amounts of marijuana where there are no other complicating factors involved.”

I’m one of many people who think that the long-promised decriminalization doesn’t go far enough (the aforementioned Senate report advocated it). Why not treat marijuana the same as alcohol, with producers, retailers and users being strictly subject to a variety of controls and the government taking a cut of the proceeds in order to fund programs? If that were to happen – and I think that it will likely be at least a decade before legalization gains sufficient political support to pass – we may one day be celebrating the great economic development potential presented by the conversion of abandoned breweries into marijuana grow operations, instead of descending upon those operations with a hundred police officers.

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