At the Liberal Party of Canada’s national policy convention last weekend, 77 per cent of delegates voted in favour of a youth wing resolution to legalize marijuana. In part, the vote reflects frustration that our expensive yet half-hearted efforts at prohibition leave communities exposed to unreasonable risk.
Despite ongoing efforts to identify and shut them down, we had an estimated 18,000 illegal indoor marijuana grow operations in summer 2011 in British Columbia alone [Globe and Mail real estate section link, now deleted]. In other words, about one in every 120 dwellings shelters a grow-op. A 2004 publication for Canadian realtors lists the costs for the wider community: a heightened risk of structural fires, chemical spills, increased violent crime and property crime, and the signficant theft of electric power, which BC Hydro values at $100 million per year in this province. This is aside from the costs imposed on individuals when they unwittingly purchase a former grow-op.
The City of Surrey, led by Fire Chief Len Garis, has set itself up as the model for how to address the grow-op problem, issuing a guide book on best practices in 2009. Among other tactics, the City has conducted aggressive fire safety inspections of suspect properties since 2005. Surrey claimed in a 2010 news release that it had made significant headway in shutting down grow-ops. Whether other cities are following Surrey’s lead or not, there still seem to be lots of entrepreneurs willing to get into the pot-growing business; it was Chief Garis himself who provided the 18,000 estimate quoted above.
Late in 2011, four of the City of Vancouver’s ex-mayors — Harcourt, Owen, Larry Campbell and Sutherland — called for the legalization of marijuana. The Prime Minister rejected the proposal. In fact, the RCMP has stepped up its war on grow-ops, at least on the communications side: the Operation Marihauna web page, launched in September 2011, lists every address in the RCMP’s jurisdiction where plants have been seized during the past year. As of January 16, 2012, the list showed 176 addresses in B.C., about 40 per cent of them in Fraseropolis. Vancouver, Abbotsford, and four other towns are not accounted for because they have locally-organized police departments. Piling guess on guess, this means that perhaps 98 per cent of B.C. grow-ops enjoyed a presumably lucrative year without police interference, despite the commitment of extensive police resources. [The Operation Marihuana link, active in 2012, was defunct when this site was checked in 2015.]
Strangely, another federal agency is actually facilitating the indoor cultivation of marijuana. Health Canada has issued permits to at least 15,000 people across Canada to grow “medical” marijuana, and refuses to disclose their names to local officials for reasons of privacy. There is every reason to suppose that these legal but unregulated grow-ops pose many of the same risks to the community as the illegal kind.
It seems hard to believe that anyone could be happy with this mish-mash of inconsistent countermeasures and unknown results. The Liberal delegates appear to be suggesting that a system of legalized, government-regulated marijuana sale would be safer and more community friendly. There may be some lessons to be learned from Canada’s long experience in regulating the sale of alcohol, a history that is widely misunderstood. Under province-by-province referendums (except in Quebec), the freewheeling and socially costly booze trade was shut down, so that only physicians and pharmacists could prescribe “medical” booze (sound familiar?); within 15 years, around 1930, the provinces were moving to over-the-counter sales through government monopoly.
(Note, added March 1 2012. On February 6, 2012, the City of Surrey posted a news release stating that its aggressive program of home inspections had reduced the number of grow ops by 82 per cent over a five-year period.)