Stop the Violence B.C.

Winter has been a strange season for drug law reform in Canada. Years of battling a minority Harper government on its multiple inceptions of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent cannabis offenses has finally gave way to a conservative majority, which has predictably pushed all the legal and moral standards to move forward this unreasonable, damaging legislation.
Understandably, thinking Canadians are gloomy as the reality of mandatory minimums set in. However, there is a silver lining. The Harper Conservatives’ contempt for the statistical, scientific, and practical experience of our closest neighbor has given rise to responses from many authoritative voices across all fields including medicine, public policy, academia, politics and law enforcement.
Stop the Violence BC is a coalition of such professionals concerned about the links between cannabis prohibition and the growth of organized crime and related violence in the province. The coalition’s objective is “to educate the general public and improve community safety by broadening the public’s understanding of the link between cannabis prohibition and gang violence. Guided by the best available scientific evidence, Stop the Violence BC is calling for cannabis to be governed by a strict regulatory framework aimed at limiting use while also starving organized crime of the profits they currently reap as a result of prohibition.”
The Coalition’s growing membership includes notable names like Vince Cain, Retired RCMP chief superintendent and coroner; Dr. Evan Wood, MD, PhD, ABIM, FRCP Director, Urban Health Research Initiative, BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and Professor at the Dept. of Medicine UBC; David Bratzer, LEAP Board member and police officer; as well as at least 60 more individuals with impressive credentials.
In Oct. the coalition published its first report, “Breaking the Silence,” an in-depth look at how cannabis prohibition has helped to increase gang activity and violence, and how different models of regulation would reduce the wealth of such organizations. “From an evidence-based perspective,” the report concludes, “cannabis prohibition has clearly failed to achieve its stated objectives and has resulted in a range of harms, not the least of which is the growth of organized crime in British Columbia and the all too common violence that has been linked to the cannabis trade.”
In Nov., four former Vancouver mayors, (Senator) Larry Campbell, Michael Harcourt, Sam Sullivan, and Philip Owen signed and released an open letter to MPs, MLAs, and municipal mayors and councilors in B.C. in support of Stop the Violence BC. “Marijuana prohibition is—without question—a failed policy,” wrote the mayors. “It is creating violent, gang-related crime in our communities and fear among our citizens, and adding financial costs for all levels of government at a time when we can least afford them. Politicians cannot ignore the status quo any longer, and must develop and deliver alternative marijuana policies that avoid the social and criminal harms that stem directly from cannabis prohibition.”
A second report produced by the coalition, “How not to Protect Community Health and Safety: What the Government’s Own Data Say About the Effects of Cannabis Prohibition” was released in Dec.
This report draws on available North American data to highlight the impact of funding for drug law enforcement on cannabis availability, potency, price, and use. The report specifically tests the assumption that increased funding for the enforcement of cannabis prohibition decreases cannabis availability, reduces potency, increases cannabis price and reduces rates of cannabis use.
Coinciding with the report’s release, the Health Officers’ Council of BC (HOC), a registered society of public health physicians who advise and advocate for public policies and programs for improving the health of populations, has unanimously passed a resolution to support Stop the Violence BC. This follows the HOC’s release of their own report in Nov. calling for the public health‐oriented regulation of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal substances.
In Feb., four former British Columbian attorneys general, Colin Gabelmann, Ujjal Dosanjh, Graeme Bowbrick, and Geoff Plant, wrote a letter to Premier Christy Clark and NDP opposition leader Adrian Dix endorsing the STVBC Campaign, and calling on them to endorse legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana to help stop gang activity associated with the illegal marijuana trade, raise tax revenue, and ease strain on the province’s overburdened court system.
“It’s time for our political leaders to accept and act on the overwhelming evidence linking marijuana prohibition to organized crime and gang violence,” said Geoff Plant, who served as attorney general from 2001 to 2005. “Punitive laws such as mandatory minimum sentences are clearly not the solution. Instead, taxation and regulation under a public health framework is the best way forward.”
Also in Feb., world business, legal and political leaders with the influential Global Commission on Drug Policy called on Canada to reject the statute for mandatory minimum sentences for minor marijuana offenses proposed in Bill C-10.
In an open letter addressed to Canadian Senators, leaders such as Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso assert that the illegality of marijuana, coupled with huge demand for the drug in the U.S., has led to increased organized crime and violence in Canada and Mexico.
“Tougher drug law enforcement tactics such as mandatory minimum sentencing for minor drug law offenses will put a huge strain on Canadian taxpayers,” the letter states. “[They] will not have the intended effect of creating safer communities, and will instead further entrench the marijuana industry in the hands of organized crime groups.”
The Commission further argues that Canada’s national law enforcement policies will have an international impact, with the unintended consequences of a “tough on crime” approach reaching other countries.
“The U.S. war on drugs has only deepened the drug problem, with drug prohibition causing violence in countries across the Americas, including Canada,” said Mr. Cardoso, who is also Commission Chair. “Fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed. We should start by treating cannabis use as a health issue and undermine organized crime by legally regulating the drug’s use rather than promoting prohibition policies which actually fuel gang violence.”
“The Global Commission supports Stop the Violence BC’s suggested approach of regulating marijuana under a public health framework,” said Ilona Szabo, spokesperson for the Secretariat of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. “Mandatory minimum sentences and further reinforcement of prohibition are not rational or prudent solutions.”
In Mar., Dr. Perry Kendall, BC’s Chief Medical officer; along with Dr. Robert Strang, Chief Medical Officer of Nova Scotia, co-authored a paper published by The BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC‐CfE) in Open Medicine, an international, peer‐reviewed medical journal. While the authors’ opinion does not reflect that of their employers, it gives those working toward change in drug policy a reason to celebrate.
The paper’s focus was mainly on cannabis, and its conclusion stated, “In light of the persistently widespread availability and relative safety of cannabis in comparison to existing legal drugs, as well as the crime and violence that exist secondary to prohibition of this drug, there is a need for discussion about the optimal regulatory strategy to reduce the harms of cannabis use while also reducing unintended policy‐attributable consequences (e.g., the organized crime that has emerged under prohibition).”
The paper recommends the Canadian government re-evaluate their current approach to cannabis, and encourages them to take a look at European examples of policy where drug use is treated as a health issue, and not a crime. It also acknowledged that this approach in Portugal and Holland has resulted in lower rates of drug use, as well as lower rates of drug related harms such as overdose, HIV, and crime.
With high-powered visible support churning out consistently from organizations like Stop the Violence BC, it has become easier to seek support at a local level. In Victoria, the city council unanimously supported a motion brought forward by councilor Ben Isitt, which endorses “the regulation and taxation of cannabis to address the ineffectiveness and harms of cannabis prohibition and agree to write municipalities in the Capitol Regional District, the Union of BC municipalities, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and provincial and federal ministers in the justice and health departments to inform them of our support.”
Drug policy change is inevitable. The harder ideologically motivated authorities like the Harper government try to push the pendulum to the right, the more it attacks the consciences of those in positions which allow them to impact the thinking of large groups of people. As more authoritative parties come forward, the way is paved for more to follow.
We may have lost the battle over mandatory minimums in Canada, but we certainly are several voices closer to winning the war.

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