As one who has made a conscious personal choice not to indulgein either substance, it has always puzzled and amused me to observe thestark contrast between how our society deals with alcohol and how it dealswith marijuana. That double standard was never more apparent than in early January when more than a hundred police officers raided a huge marijuana growoperation located in the former Molson brewery facility in Barrie. With over30,000 pot plants seized, it was reportedly “the largest and mostsophisticated marijuana operation in Canadian history.”

I waited in vain for someone else to point out the great ironyof the situation. As long as the building was being used to produce one typeof intoxicant — alcohol — its proprietors were considered model corporatecitizens. A park, a major street and at least one sports facility in thecity were named after the company, and governments at all levels were happyto share in the company’s profits, through the collection of property, salesand alcohol taxes. But, when another group of entrepreneurs set up shop toproduce another type of intoxicant — marijuana — they were labeled ascriminals and found themselves arrested, while their product and equipmentwere seized.

So, why the distinction between different forms of intoxicants beingmanufactured in the same beer vats? Clearly our governments and lawenforcement officials believe that alcohol is a good thing, while marijuanais a bad thing. The reality is a little more complicated. The CanadianMedical Association (CMA) calls the negative health effects of moderatemarijuana use “minimal.” A 2002 Senate committee report indicated that“scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantiallyless harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue butas a social and public health issue.” Eugene Oscapella, executive directorof the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy argues that “our current druglaws fund organized crime, they fund terrorist groups around the world. Ourpolicies that we build around this drug are far more harmful than the drugitself.”

Pot wasn’t even illegal in Canada until 1923, when it was included in thelist of substances banned under the Opium and Drug Act, although no chargeswere laid until 1937, and charges did not exceed 100 per year until 1966. Thatlaw was replaced by the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in 1997, but thepenalties for possessing marijuana remained in place. In 2001, Parliamentpassed a law legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes only.There are currently just under 600 Canadians who have the government’spermission to smoke pot. And, in one of the few legislative initiatives onwhich Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin agreed, the federal government ispromising to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of pot (and tothink it’s only been thirty years since the LeDain Commission first calledfor such a change). It would still be illegal, but in the same way thatjaywalking and parking at an expired meter are illegal. The penalty would bemore akin to a traffic ticket than to the criminal sanctions that arecurrently aimed at recreational users.

According to an estimate by the CMA, 1.7 million Canadians smoke marijuanarecreationally, so prohibition doesn’t appear to be achieving its objective.Approximately 600,000 Canadians have criminal records for marijuanapossession, and as many as 30,000 people have their names added to that listevery year. The CMA supports decriminalization, noting that “a criminalrecord effectively bars young people from getting jobs and opportunities,including getting into medical school.” Even the Canadian Association ofChiefs of Police advocates decriminalization, saying prosecuting people forsmall amounts ties up scarce resources (like those hundred officers involvedin the raid at the brewery). Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino,traditionally a staunch hardliner on “law and order” issues, told the Senatecommittee that he believed in “not having to burden the criminal justicesystem on certain offences involving very small amounts of marijuana wherethere are no other complicating factors involved.”

I’m one of many people who think that the long-promised decriminalizationdoesn’t go far enough (the aforementioned Senate report advocated it). Whynot treat marijuana the same as alcohol, with producers, retailers and usersbeing strictly subject to a variety of controls and the government taking acut of the proceeds in order to fund programs? If that were to happen — andI think that it will likely be at least a decade before legalization gainssufficient political support to pass — we may one day be celebrating thegreat economic development potential presented by the conversion ofabandoned breweries into marijuana grow operations, instead of descendingupon those operations with a hundred police officers.


Scott Piatkowski

Scott Piatkowski is a former columnist for He wrote a weekly column for 13 years that appeared in the Waterloo Chronicle, the Woolwich Observer and ECHO Weekly. He has also written for Straight...