Thursday, 22 November 2007

B.C. will need more jail space for pot growers

B.C. will have to find space in its already crowded jails for about 700 more marijuana growers each year if new mandatory sentences announced by the Conservative government this week are enacted, an analysis of sentencing figures suggests.

"You basically need a new prison to facilitate that," said Darryl Plecas, a criminologist at the University College of the Fraser Valley who has studied marijuana sentencing. "You're going to have hundreds, if not thousands, of people going to jail who aren't going now."

On Tuesday, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson unveiled legislation that would create mandatory minimum sentences for a number of drug offences, including growing marijuana.

Under the law, someone convicted of growing between one and 200 plants would receive at least six months in jail.
Just to make things clear, someone who has a pot plant - one pot plant - is not a dealer, not any kind of threat to society. One pot plant is not enough to supply more than the grower him(or her)self.

A mandatory sentence of six months for one plant - that is supposed to make us all safer?

The war on drugs in the United States has not worked. It is not going to work here either. Grow-ops are a problem, because of the activities of various gangs who want to control the distribution of illegal substances. So we get home invasions and turf wars. This has nothing to do with someone who has some weed for their own use. And as recently observed, the new gang task force is simply dealing with the low level operatives, not the organizers.

I will declare myself here. I have never used any illegal drug - which includes marijuana and its derivatives. I think that caffeine, chocolate and alcohol adequately meet my needs - plus some prescription meds. But my reading and research supports the notion that marijuana use is not nearly as harmful as tobacco - a legal substance I ceased using some years ago because of its proven ill health effects. Because I live in BC I am well aware of widespread use of pot - the smell is everywhere. I have also read accounts of its medicinal use and, like the previous Government of Canada, am convinced that this use is legitimate. If it really helped glaucoma, I might even be tempted, if I could use it without breaking the law. As I do not break the law. Even when I think the law is asinine. I also think we need to be able to do something more effective about impaired driving - and that includes "recreational substances" as well as alcohol.

Of all the things we need in BC - of all the potential uses of public funds - building more prisons would be my lowest priority. Prison does not deter crime, nor does it rehabilitate offenders. It does provide an environment where the power of gangs can be made much more effective. Where criminal knowledge can be spread. Where criminal responses to threats and coercion can be learned and perfected. It also is very effective at creating a social grouping that is incapable of supporting itself independently in society - hence the need for half way houses and rehab programs. Because a criminal record is not going to help anyone get a good job.

My first priority would be housing - lots of it - for people on low and limited incomes. Well integrated housing to avoid the problems of the "sink estates". The sort of housing that was built on the south shore of False Creek near Granville Island. Housing co-ops and associations of all kinds. Lots of NGOs and voluntary groups involved. No for profit "screw the poor" operations that operate so successfully here - tipping out long term tenants on the pretense of refurbishment just so they can increase rents by more than the permitted annual maximum. Or the grotesque SROs which fail every inspection on safety and health grounds but continue to operate for profit as there is no alternative.

I would look at adult education. Not just skills training for jobs but education for life - which should be free and open for everyone. And include remedial reading and literacy, civil rights and law, communications and information technology.

I would also look at schools. Not to deal with "problem kids" who are acting out and dosed up on ritalin - but the kids who nobody notices, and manage to slip through the system without picking up anything useful on the way. As a former tutor to "adult illiterates" I know that there are far too many people who leave school without the basic skills they need to survive. Because it is these people who get involved in crime - because there is almost no other way for them. They become prey for the truly anti-social, who regard other human beings as their tools - or victims.

And mental health programs, to identify and treat the illnesses that our society has a hard time acknowledging - and does not treat the disease but simply punishes the ill.

We know that all these programs work to make a better society. We also know that prisons do no such thing. The education, mental health and raw intelligence scores of the prison population are well below that of society in general. The inhabitants of prisons are disproportionately distributed - in Canada there is an unusually high prison population of First Nations and metis, as well as those with drug addictions and mental health problems. This is not coincidence, but it directly linked to the employment, housing and educational issues in those communities. It is long past time to find a way to effectively tackle these issues. Building more prisons is just a way to prolong them.

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