Durham Region (ON)

Where there’s smoke there’s fire: Debating pot laws in Durham Region

By Jeff Mitchell

Legalizing marijuana
Karen Longwell photo illustration / Northumberland News

NORTHUMERLAND – Police and many politicians oppose
the legalization of marijuana. The federal Liberal party is
in favour of regulating and taxing the sale of cannabis.
October 15, 2013.

DURHAM -- When federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau mused this past summer about the possibility of one day legalizing marijuana in this country, Marko Ivancicevic was listening.

“It was exactly what we needed to move forward,” said Mr. Ivancicevic, a long-time advocate for both medical marijuana and more liberal pot laws.

“The biggest problem, in my mind, has always been the politics of it all.”

The issue, it seems, continues to carry a political charge. Mr. Trudeau’s comments -- he admitted smoking pot as an MP and said his thinking about legalization has “evolved” -- brought both praise and condemnation.

“I do not want to see a pot aisle at the LCBO.” Durham MP Erin O’Toole

But Mr. Ivancicevic, of Oshawa, feels Mr. Trudeau was simply reflecting the views of many Canadians.

“The fact is, at the end of the day, marijuana is not as harmful as it is purported to be,” he said. “There are a lot of votes that are now being swayed on this issue alone in Canada.”

In a recent article Macleans magazine cited a poll that indicates 57 per cent of Canadians support legalization, while 68 per cent considered the so-called war on drugs to be a failure.

But Erin O’Toole, the Conservative MP for Durham riding, isn’t convinced Canadians are clambering for legal pot.

“It’s not high on people’s list of priorities,” he said. “Our top priority, writ large, is jobs and the economy.”

Mr. O’Toole said it’s “ironic” that Mr. Trudeau, who has been reluctant to define Liberal policies prior to the next federal election, has seized upon pot as an issue just now.

“It’s unfortunate the Liberals seem to be hanging their hat on an issue that is so far down on the priority list for Canadian families,” he said. “We’re all sort of baffled as to why.”

Legalizing the drug is a complicated issue, said Peri Ballantyne, a Trent University professor of health sociology.

Ms. Ballantyne has done research on medical marijuana and people’s ability to access it. She believes legalizing marijuana would benefit people in need of it for medical issues such as pain relief and nausea.

“I think legalizing it would benefit those people a lot,” she said.

Ms. Ballantyne doesn’t believe marijuana is as addictive as other drugs for pain accessible through prescriptions such as oxycodone.

“There are strong arguments that (marijuana) is not more harmful than things already out there,” said Ms. Ballantyne.

There would be consequences, however. In particular Ms. Ballantyne worried about easier access to the drug for younger people.

Mr. Ivancicevic contends governments could seize the opportunity to regulate marijuana, deriving income and funneling money away from criminals.

“There are many different ways each level of government could benefit from the legalization of marijuana,” he said.

In 2004 Mr. Ivancicevic, facing a possession charge, launched a challenge to the constitutionality of Canada’s pot laws. A judge in Oshawa ruled against him and gave him a suspended sentence. Mr. Ivancicevic, 32, said he soon came to realize that change is most likely to be affected in the political realm as opposed to the courts.

“As much as I’ve been disenfranchised by politics in the past, I really feel for the first time in the 10 years I’ve been involved that we’re really, really close,” he said. “You can’t have a major issue like that, and have support for it across the country, and not have a political party take up that issue.”

Mr. O’Toole doesn’t see his government addressing legalization any time soon. Indeed, a hallmark of the Conservative’s crime-fighting platform has been to toughen laws for marijuana trafficking and production.

But that doesn’t mean the MP is opposed to change. He’s supportive of a resolution by Canada’s police chiefs, which calls for cops to be given the discretion to simply write tickets for small-scale possession offences. The move would be less taxing on police and court resources, he said.

“It’s really about giving the police discretion when it’s clearly a case of personal consumption,” Mr. O’Toole said. “I think that is something we should look at.”

Mr. O’Toole said he’d draw the line there. He’s opposed to legalization and doesn’t want to see the state involved in distribution of the drug.

“I do not see the public good in promoting its use,” he said.

“I do not want to see a pot aisle at the LCBO.”


Cops have discretion on possession charges

Marijuana possession continues to be a criminal offence, and cops in Durham will respond appropriately.
 So says Durham police Deputy Chief Scott Burns, when asked to comment on the renewed debate over possession laws.
 “We enforce laws, we do not create them,” Deputy Chief Burns said in an e-mail. “If the laws are changed regarding the possession of marijuana, we will certainly follow the new rules.”
 Current legislation dictates that people found to be in possession of more than 30 grams are arrested and charged. Offenders in possession of less than 30 grams will receive a notice to appear in court to face their charge. The maximum penalty for possession of less than 30 grams is $1,000 or up to six months in jail.
 “The officer has some discretion in these cases and we generally would seize or destroy the product,” Deputy Chief Burns said.
 In 2012, Durham police laid a total of 2,084 charges under the Control Drug and Substance Act (CDSA), 1,143 of them cannabis-related. 
 Of those 1,143 cannabis-related charges, 608 charges were for possession of cannabis under 30 grams. Another 223 charges were laid for possession of cannabis over 30 grams.
-- With files by Karen Longwell