VANCOUVER - Mayors from eight B.C. communities have added their voices to calls to the provincial government to regulate and tax marijuana as part of a strategy to end gang violence and make communities safer.
Mayors from Vancouver, Burnaby, North Vancouver City, Vernon, Armstrong, Enderby, Lake Country and Metchosin made the argument in an April 26 letter to B.C.'s premier, Opposition NDP leader and B.C. Conservative party leader.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson was unavailable for comment Thursday afternoon, but Coun. Kerry Jang, who is also professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, said the current federal laws have failed.
Jang said the laws have led to increased organized crime, policing costs and the presence of grow ops.
"To make matters worse, we just look around, certainly we see here in the City of Vancouver, that pot is more readily available than ever before," he said.
"Whatever the federal government policy is, is not working, and we're saying that we need a better approach, and that is to regulate it using a public health model, much as we do, for example, with tobacco or alcohol."
The letter appeared on the website of Stop the Violence BC, a coalition of law-enforcement officials, legal experts, academics and public health officials.
The group wants to develop and implement marijuana policies that reduce social harms like crime.
In their letter, the mayors argue prohibition has led to large-scale grow-ops, increased organized crime, ongoing gang violence, and larger police budgets.
Despite an "endless stream of anti-marijuana law enforcement initiatives," marijuana remains widely and easily available to youth.
"Based on the evidence before us, we know that laws that aim to control the marijuana industry are ineffective and, like alcohol prohibition in the U.S. in the 1920s, have led to violent unintended consequences," it states.
Based on statistics from the Organized Crime Agency of BC, the mayors state 85 per cent of the province's marijuana industry is controlled by criminal groups.
Using statistics from the right-of-centre policy group, the Fraser Institute, the mayors also state the industry is worth $7 billion annually.
"It is time to tax and strictly regulate marijuana under a public health framework," they write, adding that such a move would allow the government to address health issues, raise government revenue and eliminate profits going to organized crime.
While the provincial NDP supports decriminalization, New Democrats understand the federal government has jurisdiction on the issue, said the party's justice critic Leonard Krog.
"It doesn't appear that the federal government has any interest in decriminalization," said Krog. "Indeed, they are moving forward with crime legislation that is going to jam our court system."
Bill C-10, known as the Safe Streets and Communities Act, includes mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offences and received Royal Assent on March 13.
Krog said there is a growing consensus among British Columbians that marijuana should be decriminalized and it's time to debate the issue.
B.C. Conservative Leader John Cummins wouldn't say whether he supports or opposes decriminalization and taxation, but criticized several of the mayors' arguments.
"I think people are not thinking the things out carefully," he said.
Legalization will negatively impact trade with the United States and lead to longer waits at the border because border agents won't absorb extra security costs just to move traffic, he said.
Legalization will also negatively impact B.C.'s tourism industry, added Cummins.
"You are going to attract tourists who are interested in, you know, smoking it up at will and that could have a, you know, detrimental affect on the tourist industry," he said.
Cummins also criticized the taxation argument, saying he doesn't think the government would be able to easily tax the drug because people can grow marijuana at home.
A statement from the B.C. justice ministry said North Americans have been discussing decriminalization for "some time."
"However, it is important to note that criminal code matters rest solely with the federal government. As such, as a provincial government, we are not going to speculate on public debate about a matter over which we do not have authority."
But Jang said it's important to get the support of municipal and provincial politicians for change to happen at the federal level.
A similar approach was used with Insite, a supervised injection site in Vancouver for intravenous drug users, he said.
"It's a grass-roots campaign that started at cities and working it's way up other levels of government," said Jang.
Since October, four former B.C. attorneys general, several Vancouver mayors and a host of police and health officers, academics and the Brazil-based Global Commission on Drug Policy have challenged provincial and federal governments to reform Canadian laws.
Earlier this month, John McKay, former high-profile U.S. federal prosecutor who helped jail Canada's "Prince of Pot," Marc Emery, joined calls to end prohibition in favour of regulation and taxation.