It hasn't been a good month for the Carter brothers. Backstreet Boy Nick Carter got nicked for driving under the influence and -- talk about "Aaron's Party"!-- younger brother Aaron was featured in a photospread the National Enquirer, allegedly smoking pot.
I think everyone agrees that driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol is dangerous activity that puts non-consenting others at risk for injury or death. So Nick Carter, if the allegations against him prove true, should pay the penalty -- whether a fine, loss of license, community service, or jail time.
But should we be looking at Aaron Carter's pot-smoking photos with more than bemusement? (I should add that some think the photos were doctored; in the digital age, photographs should not be admissible as evidence in criminal proceedings.)
If the general War on Drugs is a war on the constitution, isn't the War on Marijuana nothing more than a war on common sense?
Maclean's, the Canadian newsweekly, recently had a cover story on the issue of marijuana laws north of the 49th Parallel.
On March 3, four RCMP officers (we know them as "Mounties," but they're not the doofuses one would expect if your only exposure to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police comes from reruns of Dudley Do-Right cartoons or the Brendan Fraser movie) were gunned down in rural Alberta by a marijuana farmer. The murders have re-lit a nationwide debate on Canada's marijuana laws: The most common question is, Are they too lax?
Not everyone thinks the answer is "yes". Maclean's reports:
In fact, the marijuana trade has always featured relatively low rates of violence, says Neil Boyd, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University. He disagrees with those who would use this tragedy to rally public support around a crackdown.
"It's not surprising when you get a horrific crime such as this and a grow op is front and centre in the portrait -- people will use that to jump into the marijuana decriminalization debate," Boyd says. "It's probably more appropriate to look at this individual and what he represents rather than to focus on any policy that ought to come out of such a horrible tragedy. I'm not at all clear that this case has as much to do with grow ops as it does with a person whose own father describes him as evil."
There is often a tendency, in discussions of public-policy issues, to draw broad but unwarranted conclusions from isolated incidents, leading to legislation by emotion rather than reason. In the United States, as in Canada, debates about drug laws are often colored by irrational reactions, urban legends, and unsupported evidence.
Witness the reaction to the RCMP killings by a Canadian cabinet member, Anne McLellan, reported in an accompanying article in the same issue of Maclean's:
Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan strongly suggested some of Canada's judges need to wake up to the fact that big-time marijuana growing is a dangerous crime that calls for serious prison time. Speaking out after the slaying of four Mounties in her home province of Alberta, McLellan pointed to the stiffer penalties for grow-op convictions allowed under the Liberal government's overhaul of marijuana laws. The new legislation would double to 14 years the maximum prison sentence for being convicted of cultivating more than 50 marijuana plants. She said the bill puts "the onus on the courts, the judiciary, in a sense, to take this crime seriously." And if that didn't make her critical view clear, McLellan added: "The judiciary needs to start to reflect the harsh reality of illegal grow ops and the consequences for our communities and society in the sentences they hand out."
Maclean's offers a good corrective to this harsh, reactionary, exaggerated point-of-view in its balanced coverage of the RCMP murder cases. The main article cited above goes on to explain:
But many experts in the drug trade say there is a serious danger that lawmakers and law enforcers will let anger and grief drive their decisions. By raising penalties and cracking down on supply, police may well drive more production into the hands of well-financed and well-armed organized crime gangs, Boyd says.
For example, the North American trade in heroin and cocaine has attracted a much more violent and aggressive brand of criminal element, Boyd says -- largely because the profits associated with those drugs and the penalties resulting from conviction are so much higher. Police cannot reduce demand, and by raising the stakes in the marijuana trade, they may force out small-time, non-violent producers and turn even more of the market over to hard-core gangsters, inevitably leading to an increase in violence associated with the pot trade.
That fear is echoed by Eugene Oscapella, an Ottawa lawyer and long-time critic of Canada's drug policies. Oscapella points out that it is extremely rare for Canadian police officers to die in the course of drug investigations. Rather than increasing efforts to stamp out marijuana, he says, government should be talking more seriously about regulation along the lines of alcohol and tobacco. "The grow ops themselves are a product of prohibition," Oscapella says. "Violence associated with the trade in marijuana stems from the fact that our government in its folly has chosen to deal with this drug through a prohibitory model rather than a regulatory model. There is no violence when you go to the liquor store."
The debate in the United States on marijuana-law reform is not as robust as it ought to be.
Take, for example, a poll on the question of medicinal marijuana from the AARP (the liberal retired persons' lobby group), which was conducted last fall and scheduled for publication in the March/April issue of the organization's magazine. The article was spiked -- although results of the poll appear on the AARP web site -- due to pressure from drug-warriors inside and outside the government. As explained in a news release from the Drug Policy Alliance:
At the beginning of February, AARP posted the findings of a poll they had commissioned on medical marijuana on their website. The poll found that 72% of older Americans (45 and over) support an adult's right to use medical marijuana with a physician's recommendation.Free and open discussion. That should be our aim -- our intermediate aim. Our ultimate aim should be the end of prohibition.
A December 18th Associated Press article discussing the poll mentioned that AARP The Magazine was scheduled to release an article about medical marijuana in its March/April issue. But when the March/April issue reached subscribers in late January, the article was conspicuously absent. The editors had apparently pulled the article in response to malicious attacks by a "media watchdog" organization, Accuracy in Media, and a pressure campaign by fanatical anti-drug groups with a long history of engaging in malicious and dishonest attacks.
"We urge the editors of AARP The Magazine not to cave in to such attacks and to publish the medical marijuana article soon," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Ultimately this issue is not about medical marijuana but whether or not free and open discussion of issues that matter to AARP members will be censored and abandoned in the face of coarse attacks by disreputable forces."
Only then will Aaron Carter and his friends be able to live undisturbed by prying eyes and intrusive laws.
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