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Tories act out of spite in pot spat with cops

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It appears the cold war between Canada's police chiefs and the Tory federal government has not entirely thawed.

On Tuesday, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police made headlines at their annual conference in Winnipeg by adopting a proposal to punish simple possession of marijuana with a citation as opposed to a criminal charge.

The chiefs noted nearly half of all drug charges involve individuals with 30 grams or less of pot. Although the chiefs expressly rejected the idea of legalization or decriminalization, they argued punishing simple possession with the equivalent of a speeding ticket would allow police to reallocate resources to more serious crimes.

With its proposal, the CACP falls significantly short of community standards on this important issue; a healthy majority of Canadians already support some form of decriminalization, if not outright legalization. And yet, there is value in the CACP proposal.

The CACP has come up with a proposal that does not require any seismic changes to drug laws. It would clearly free police, and the justice system, from having to spend valuable time dealing with something most people agree is a very minor offence. It does not legalize pot, but does establish a platform from which a debate about legalization can more effectively take place.

There must have been disappointment when Justice Minister Peter MacKay, who was in Winnipeg the same day, issued a terse reaction to the CACP proposal: "These drugs are illegal because of the harmful effects they have on users -- and society for that matter," MacKay said in an email to The Canadian Press. "As a government, we have a responsibility to protect the interests of families across this country."

What stands out in MacKay's response is his failure to respond to the key element in the CACP proposal. Namely, that pot remains illegal but that simple possession be treated less harshly.

CACP officials would not publicly admit to any disappointment, saying they would rather give MacKay more time before concluding he is as uninterested in the proposal as he seemed to be this week.

It's good at times like this to remember police chiefs are equal parts cop and politician. And that it doesn't make any political sense to start a scrap with MacKay right out of the gate. Even so, this is yet another tidbit of evidence about the chiefs' estrangement from the tough-on-crime Conservative government.

Relations have been a bit rocky between the chiefs and the Tories following a well-publicized disagreement about the value of the now-abandoned long-gun registry. The chiefs liked the registry, and lobbied the Tories to keep it intact. The Tories were deeply committed to killing it, if for no other reason than keeping a long-standing promise to the bedrock supporters of the Conservative party, for whom the registry was an assault on their basic freedoms. The conflict caused tempers to flare on both sides.

The low-point in this cold war came at 2011 House of Commons committee hearings into the bill that would ultimately scrap the long-gun registry. Not only did Tory MPs not yield to a plea to keep the registry, they went on the offensive, accusing the CACP of misleading Canadians on the amount of law enforcement support for the registry.

The fallout from this conflict would become apparent a year later when the Tories struck a firearms advisory committee and excluded both the CACP and the Canadian Police Association, which had also supported the registry.

Since then, it's unclear whether there has been a mending of fences between the Tories and the chiefs. The CACP has been a vocal defender of other Tory crime legislation, and yet the response to the marijuana proposal suggests relations between the two are still frigid.

This is a federal government that demands its allies offer unwavering support of all policies. As was seen with the gun registry, even those groups that support most but not all of what the Conservative government has done, can lose traction very quickly indeed.

However, in this instance, the Tories appear to be acting out of spite. Canada's police chiefs are a valuable resource. No one can argue they do not have the credibility to discuss the consequences of federal laws and policies on the front line of the war on crime. The chiefs stand vigil over that line, each and every day, and should have the government's ear based on that fact alone.

The CACP should not have undue influence on government policy; they are, in fact, just one voice in the national debate over crime and punishment. However, the idea the chiefs could lose credibility in Ottawa based on a single issue is troubling to say the least.

Reducing penalties for simple possession of marijuana is not perhaps the complete solution to Canada's muddled drug laws. However, it's an idea that deserves more attention than the federal Tories seem willing to give it now.

dan.lett@freepres.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 22, 2013 A4

History

Updated on Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 7:15 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of Peter MacKay

8:35 AM: Adds missing words

10:23 AM: Corrects typo, corrects word

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