Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Former cop makes case for legalizing marijuana

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Meet Bill VanderGraaf. The 61-year-old former Winnipeg police detective is the local poster boy for the movement against drug prohibition, specifically marijuana.

Recent Canadian polls and the fact two U.S. states approved the recreational use of marijuana would suggest it's a growing movement.

During his 29 years on the police force, VanderGraaf was a stereotypical cop: gruff, stoic, dedicated. His uncle was city police officer Peter VanderGraaf, who with his partner Jack Taylor defined policing in Winnipeg in the 1960s and '70s. Another uncle was also a cop and two other family members were Mounties.

During his early years on the job, VanderGraaf saw the world in black and white. That changed in December 1985 when he helped arrest a 28-year-old, on-duty city police officer in a drug raid, catching him in possession of seven grams of marijuana. The officer quickly resigned from the force and pleaded guilty in provincial court, receiving a $100 fine.

"I actually realized that the war on marijuana was crazy when I had to arrest a uniform cop for using pot," VanderGraaf says. "He lost his job, but the alcoholics on the job driving impaired or worse were given breaks and allowed to keep their jobs. Silly, I thought."

VanderGraaf retired in 2001. Six years later, he was arrested for growing marijuana in the basement of his house. Police seized 21 plants. He later got a conditional discharge, successfully arguing in court he was growing the plant for his own use and to help his ailing father, who in his final year suffered from ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. His son gave him marijuana cookies to ease his pain.

The following year, VanderGraaf joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), and since then has been a vocal proponent of legalizing marijuana.

"I believe it can be a health benefit to some people," the licensed medical marijuana user says.

"I think marijuana should be provincially regulated and then controlled. What we do is eliminate that aspect from organized crime. They make huge profits off it in this country. I think it's better suited that those profits come to us, the people, so that we can, in turn, put them into our health-care system and other societal needs like social services."

A conservative estimate is the province could see a $600-million boost in revenue, he says, based on the estimate that 20 per cent of Manitobans smoke marijuana.

When LEAP was formed, the idea that any jurisdiction in North America would approve anything to do with marijuana was as far off as humans landing on Jupiter.

That changed Nov. 6, when voters in Colorado and Washington approved ballot measures allowing the use of pot without a doctor's recommendation for adults over 21. Adults in Colorado can now possess up to an ounce of marijuana, or six plants. Public use and sale of the drug remain illegal.

In Washington, the personal possession of up to one ounce of pot -- roughly 28 grams -- is allowed. Selling it remains illegal.

The changes in Colorado and Washington prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to say prosecuting recreational users in the two states is not a "top priority."

In Canada, a recent survey by Toronto's Forum Research found 65 per cent of Canadians favour either the legalization and taxation of the drug, or decriminalizing it in small amounts.

Public opinion surveys done by Angus Reid and Postmedia News and Global TV have had similar results.

VanderGraaf and others say Canada should go one step further than Colorado and Washington. It should allow the provinces to tax it as with cigarettes and alcohol.

The revenue would be staggering, they say.

How staggering?

Researchers from the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University said in a recent study British Columbians' pot purchases alone total about half a billion dollars each year. The Fraser Institute, a right-of-centre policy group, estimates B.C.'s marijuana industry is worth $7 billion annually.

Lead author Dan Werb, a member of the pro-pot Stop the Violence B.C. coalition, said the regulation of marijuana by the provinces and Ottawa would have three major effects on the country:

-- It would remove a source of revenue from organized crime, which controls the cultivation and distribution of marijuana.

-- Governments would have more resources for core services such as health care and education because they wouldn't be spending as much money on street-level drug enforcement and court proceedings.

-- It would generate tax revenue from a government-regulated marijuana-distribution system.

"You're going to suddenly have a government that's a lot better positioned compared to organized crime, that has a lot more resources that are freed up and a lot more tax revenue," Werb said, adding some of that new revenue could go toward drug prevention and treatment programs and other health-care or social service initiatives.

"Also what you do is, if you're freeing up law enforcement from simply getting bogged down in arresting street-level dealers or people who happen to have a few joints on them, they're in a much better position to start going after people in the upper echelon of organized crime."

But that's easier said than done.

Drug laws are a federal responsibilty in Canada. That means, at least for now, only Ottawa can amend or soften the laws against marijuana possession -- not provinces or municipalities.

"The control of those substances is a matter of federal law," Manitoba Justice Minister Andrews Swan said. "Manitoba has no ability to pass laws in areas already covered by federal legislation (the Controlled Drug and Substances Act). The provinces have no right to make criminal law at all."

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Canadians should not take any cues from Colorado and Washington.

"First of all, I think you've got to be very careful about pointing to these two states as any kind of relaxing of the law in respect of marijuana in the United States," Toews said. "The federal government there and the federal lawmakers still make it a very harsh crime if you're caught. So I would just caution any Canadian going into those states -- and thinking that they will essentially be given a free pass -- to be very careful about that.

"Secondly, our government has made it clear that we do not support the legalization of marijuana and I have no further comments to make on that."

Despite that, municipal leaders in British Columbia have taken up the fight to legalize pot.

At a Union of B.C. Municipalities meeting in September, civic leaders agreed to lobby Ottawa to pursue the decriminalization, taxation and regulation of marijuana. The vote followed a debate in which some argued Canada's prohibition on pot is a failed policy that has cost millions of dollars in police, court, jail and social costs. (Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz declined an interview request on the subject).

Pot proponents want the B.C. government to pass the Sensible Policing Act, which would direct all police in the province away from making searches, seizures or arrests in cases of simple cannabis possession. They want a provincial referendum in 2014.

VanderGraaf believes marijuana decriminalization in Canada could come within three years if the Conservatives are voted out of office in the next federal election, which is scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has said he supports the creation of a commission to examine the decriminalization of marijuana. He has also said no one should go to jail for possessing a couple of joints. The Liberals have already said, if elected, they would move to legalize weed completely and regulate its production and sale, although it remains to be seen if that becomes one of their campaign planks.

"The Canadian public is using it anyway," VanderGraaf says. "I don't expect a huge increase in the use of this product if it's legalized. There may be some increase, but I think it would level out just like we saw in places like the Netherlands."

Marijuana is technically illegal in the Netherlands, but police do not prosecute people for possession of small amounts.

After several decades of marijuana tolerance, reports say rates for Dutch pot use are in the middle of international norms, higher than those in neighbouring Germany, but lower than those in France, Britain, Australia or even the United States.

Marijuana use in Canada is similar to that in the U.S. among teens and adults, according to the Canadian Public Health Association and the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba.

"The vast majority of young people report greater access to cannabis than to alcohol and tobacco," Werb added. "I don't think it's by coincidence that tobacco and alcohol are regulated and cannabis is ostensibly prohibited. We have a system where you have ready access to cannabis. Where do they get it? Four lockers down."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2013 A6

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Updated on Saturday, January 5, 2013 at 7:45 AM CST: adds fact box

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