Commentary: Relationship between pot laws and gang violence

When it comes to marijuana prohibition, our politicians are polarized. There is, however, a middle ground.



Last Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper bluntly confirmed that legalizing marijuana is not a possibility under his administration. Harper's comment came after four former Vancouver mayors signed an open letter to British Columbia's politicians calling for an end to cannabis prohibition.

The letter, signed by Larry Campbell, Mike Harcourt, Sam Sullivan and Philip Owen, says legalizing marijuana could help to reduce gang violence in their city. Current Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson agreed with the views expressed by his predecessors.

How this relates to Halifax

Play BoxPlay Arrow

Student Perspectives (Video: Nicolas Bergeron & Jacob Morgan)

Here in Halifax, Mayor Peter Kelly was not available to comment on this issue but Constable Brian Palmeter of the Halifax Regional Police (HRP) agrees with the prime minister.

"Essentially we're not in favor of any changes to the laws surrounding marijuana," says Constable Palmeter. "That's our position, it's pretty short and sweet."

On the other hand, many experts tend to disagree with the HRP and Prime Minister Harper. Donald Clairmont, the director of the Atlantic Institute of Criminology, says the illegal drug trade is a major source of income for gangs who account for the lion's share of violent crimes in Halifax. One such criminal group is the notorious "North Preston Finest" gang, which has been operating out of Halifax for over 20 years.

"I try to be non-ideological about this," Clairmont says. "I would lean towards the notion that we shouldn't criminalize it."

Clairmont compiled the Violence and Public Safety in the Halifax Regional Municipality report to Mayor Kelly in 2008. He says murders are up in 2011.

"I think it's 15 so far this year, a little more than the average," Clairmont says. "A very high proportion of those cases are related to gang behaviour, selling or dealing drugs."

The case for legalizing drugs

Alan Young, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto and an expert on criminal law and drug policy, takes Clairmont's observations to their logical conclusion.

In Young's view, the violence surrounding the illegal drug trade has more to do with the illegality of the trade than with the actual drugs.

Violent crime is, as Professor Young puts it, "an unfortunate byproduct of a prohibition policy ... [Violence] can be reduced the more you legalize substances and avoid the creation of the black market."

A possible compromise

Despite the seemingly black and white dichotomy of the marijuana legalization debate, there is a fertile middle ground to be found between Harper's iron fist and Young's open hand.

There is no sense in perpetuating a law that fuels gang violence and makes common criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens. That being said, it would be difficult to imagine a scenario where hard street drugs such as heroin or cocaine are made available to the public, except under special circumstances like morphine for dying patients.

For Canadians, marijuana prohibition has a very distinctive historical parallel. The end of the prohibition era in the United States also spelled the end of smuggling alcohol from our side of the border. The most notorious bootleggers of all, Montreal's Bronfman family, were transformed from outlaws to upstanding citizens and philanthropists.

Likewise, ending the current prohibition era could yield enormous social and economic benefits. Eliminating the criminality associated with trade in a lucrative product would bring the funds, along with the participants, back into society's mainstream.

The key to this transition, which the prime minister may not realize, is to regulate and tax marijuana rather than to ban it.


Comments on this story are now closed

This is a great article - great work Jacob.

Posted by Bill McEwen | Dec 3, 2021