When I walk through the streets of Vancouver, B.C., where the skyscrapers are more numerous, the waterfront more inviting and the mountains appear to rise right above me, it is easy to imagine that I am wandering the landscape of an amped up, Super-Tacoma. Then I’ll have a chat with one of my brethren in Canadian law enforcement and realize that, despite the visual similarities (mountains, water, umm… marijuana), our American society holds several distinctions from that which exists in the Great White North.
Starting with the cops. Canadian police, I have observed, have less oversight and more authority than their U.S. counterparts. A cop in Canada requires no reason to pull your car over to the side of the road for “an inspection”, a point which allows for routine DUI checkpoints (a constitutional issue in the U.S.). Canada’s gun control laws, though lax by European standards, are strict enough to keep many NRA members from so much as venturing across the border.
Then there is drug enforcement. I happened to discuss this with an old friend from the Vancouver Police Department, and our conversation was an eye-opener.
It began, as many cop conversations do, with a story. In this instance I was describing my surveillance and subsequent arrest of a heroin dealer and his customer in a part of town infamous for this type of trade. The only part of this story that stood out from a hundred other similar incidents was that this particular dealer had nine felony points (the state point system maxed out at nine for sentencing purposes). In this case the aging junkie I had arrested, who was no more than an errand boy for the dealer hidden inside a homeless shelter, was looking at a potential twelve year sentence for handing over a single piece of heroin.
He reflected on this a moment before replying, “When I see a junkie shooting up on the street I usually say, ‘C’mon, take it inside!’”
That pretty much summed up the Canadian view on narcotics enforcement. Since Canada spends significantly less per capita on incarceration than the U.S., it is no surprise that its sentencing guidelines for drug-related crimes are far more lax than our own. This in turn seems to have placed narcotics enforcement low on the priority scale.
Canadians, at least in the Vancouver area, are fairly open-minded on the topic. In fact, the city itself is currently struggling with the issue of marijuana legalization, much like our own state legislature. There are, however, some basic differences between the discussions here and north of the border. In keeping with Canadian culture, the tone of the conversation is relatively civil; the support also comes from an unlikely source – local politicians.
The Vancouver Sun recently reported that four former Vancouver mayors are fully supportive of marijuana legalization. Their view is that gangs and organized crime leaders have won the War on Drugs, and that legalization should stop violence and raise tax money. Those are very questionable statements, but nevertheless the discussion has reached a local level where big change could well be imminent.
Just as there are cultural differences on this issue, there is also a familiar political theme: the position of the federal government. Much like our own Republican Party, the Conservative Party of Canada (currently in power) is very much against legalized marijuana. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s pledge to prevent legalized marijuana is a roadblock similar in size and shape to the one currently residing in Washington, D.C.
There may be some lessons to learn here. The manner in which people in this beautiful foreign (but familiar) city on our northern border deal with a similar issue may provide a solid roadmap for our own struggles. At the very least we could pay attention and attempt to learn from their mistakes.