Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's high time to end crackdown on head shops

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In every city, town and rural area in Manitoba this morning, many of your fellow citizens are self-administering a mind-altering substance -- and authorities aren't doing a thing about it.

Inside the privacy of their homes, on their way to work and even in public places, hundreds of thousands of Manitobans are consuming a xanthine alkaloid that stimulates the central nervous system.

This white, crystalline substance increases pressure on the eyes, raises anxiety levels and interferes with a key brain chemical known as adenosine. In severe cases, it can even cause heart palpitations and cardiac arrest.

The drug in question is the most widely used psychoactive substance known to humankind. It is, of course, caffeine, which is entirely legal in Canada. It's also mostly harmless and generally unregulated.

The way we treat caffeine is highly instructive, especially considering how we treat other psychoactive substances.

THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana, is also mostly harmless, an overwhelming body of medical and social science has found. Yet marijuana is illegal and only regulated in its medicinal form, consumed primarily by chronic pain sufferers and cancer patients.

Given that marijuana is illegal, it stands to reason authorities continue to arrest and prosecute anyone involved in its production and distribution. What doesn't make sense is a crackdown on the retailers of marijuana-smoking paraphernalia.

The primary reason marijuana producers and distributors are prosecuted is not to prevent the substance from ending up in the hands of consumers, who represent a broad spectrum of otherwise law-abiding society. After all, roughly one in two Canadians has tried smoking weed, at some point.

Rather, marijuana is seized to deprive organized crime of a revenue stream, one that can be used to finance far more noxious and destructive illegal activities. This is the primary harm caused to society by marijuana production and distribution.

Secondary harms include the loss of tax revenue to the state and the expense of devoting precious police resources to marijuana-related investigations.

No politician can credibly argue marijuana consumption itself is a serious public health or safety issue. Yet the City of Winnipeg is taking action against retailers who sell the physical means of consuming marijuana -- pipes, bongs and other instruments used to smoke pot.

This is absurd. Logically, it's akin to engaging in a crackdown on the retailers of coffee cups or teapots in a society that decided to render caffeine illegal.

Over the past couple of months, Winnipeg police have raided four Winnipeg head shops.

In a carefully worded statement issued last week, the police denied engaging in a crackdown. Rather, they maintain they're responding to complaints about these shops, which some citizens consider a blight upon their neighbourhoods.

There are many legal businesses some Winnipeggers will not appreciate, let alone tolerate near their homes or schools. Undesirable businesses include porn retailers, pawn shops and non-therapeutic body-rub establishments.

Body-rub parlours are of particular relevance, as what happens within their walls is tantamount to a legalized sex trade. Yet these places are permitted to operate under the principle of harm reduction: Women who provide sexual services in a regulated environment are afforded better protection than most street prostitutes could ever expect.

The City of Winnipeg uses zoning regulations to determine where porn, pawn and body-rub shops go. It is well within the city's power to also determine where head shops can operate.

Citizens who don't like retailers of marijuana paraphernalia are justified in complaining to city hall and clamouring for better regulation of where these stores may and may not operate. But a sudden upswing in police enforcement, especially during a municipal election year, appears arbitrary and heavy-handed.

Police will never be able to quash the consumption of marijuana simply by closing head shops. If deprived of their bongs, pipes and other (often silly-looking) devices, marijuana smokers will simply resort to buying rolling papers from convenience stores, where potato chips and taquitos serve as additional attractants.

Many police officers, of course, actually support the decriminalization or even legalization of marijuana, a move that would free up law enforcement resources, deprive organized crime of revenue and potentially create a new source of government tax revenue.

But that's another issue. If the primary harm posed by head shops is entirely esthetic, then the proper arena for dealing with these retailers is not a courtroom, but a zoning hearing at city hall.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 10, 2014 B1

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives

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