Earlier this month, Chris Clay sprang from his bed to see what was the matter but he didn't find Santa Claus. It was the clatter of five London police officers bounding through his house.
Clay, 25, is the owner of Hemp Nation, a London store at 343 Richmond St. that used to carry pipes and other such items but which is now almost strictly into hemp-related cloth products. About the same time police were at Clay's house they were also raiding his store. Clay was thrown in the pokey for four days while gathering bail. He was charged with breaching bail conditions, possession of a narcotic, possession with intent to traffic, and selling drug paraphernalia. Along the way, Clay says police confiscated seeds, pipes, computers, financial records, and smoking paraphernalia he says are worth $40,000.
Clay has been kicking at the shins of convention for some time now and he hasn't been particularly quiet about it. You have only to visit his Hemp Nation web site to find what seems like a confession. "I was just waking up and heard a loud banging at the door; once I opened it, the police poured into the house and searched it, finding a gram of marijuana."
Clay says he will challenge the criminalization of marijuana in Canadian law. He's raising money for a constitutional challenge based on charges stemming from a 1995 bust, with so-called Victory Bonds. For $25, you get one bond "redeemable for a quarter ounce of quality marijuana once cannabis prohibition has ended."
This issue will get a lot bigger, particularly with Clay's hiring of Osgoode Hall lawyer Alan Young to pursue constitutional arguments. His case comes up in April and "if I lose, we'll appeal," he said in an interview. And so he should.
RIDICULOUS: It is ridiculous that thousands of Canadians every year get a criminal record for possessing cannabis products when our governments are actively pushing far more addictive and punishing products such as tobacco, alcohol and gambling.
Does anyone else out there wonder why we are spending enormous sums of money on police, Crown attorneys, lawyers, and judges to get cannabis convictions? Why are we making criminals out of young people whose only sin is that their chosen vice isn't officially sanctioned?
Increasingly, governments have become dependent for tax dollars on the avails of vice. That's our fault as taxpayers, because we refuse to pay for the services we demand. In brutish terms, governments have become vice mafia, with police as the muscle to keep out unregulated vice. Unsanctioned casino, unregistered cigarette plant -- bust it.
Maybe it is time for a little perspective on where the real threat resides.
Substance abuse sucked $18.5 billion out of the Canadian economy in 1992 -- that's $649 for every man, woman and child. Tobacco was responsible for more than half of that -- $9.6 billion -- yet Ottawa and Queen's Park pussyfoot around regulation and even help farmers to grow better plants and industry to find international markets. Alcohol was to blame for $7.5 billion of that loss -- remember, one in 20 drinkers is an alcoholic. Booze killed off almost 16,000 Canadians in 1988, not surprising when every Canadian over the age of 15 averaged 11 drinks a week.
Now look at illicit drugs, that punching bag of police and politicians -- $1.4 billion on losses to the economy. This is not insignificant, and drugs such as heroin and cocaine can be destructive, but marijuana is not a big part of the problem. The total is equal to the law enforcement costs for booze alone in Canada. It is incredible a restraint-minded Queen's Park would extend bar hours and open liquor stores on Sunday when such enormous health and spending issues are at stake.
The reason booze and smokes get thumbs up and grass doesn't is simple -- rich powerful guys prefer Rothmans and rye to reefer. And rich powerful guys get to choose which buzz is legal.
Not convinced? Let's look at another potentially hazardous drug -- caffeine. The morning fix is legal, as close as a machine even though four per cent of Canadians exceed 650 milligrams of caffeine a day -- eight to nine cups, the point at which their health is affected. They suffer from chronic insomnia, persistent anxiety and depression, stomach ulcers as well as an irregular heartbeat and elevated cholesterol levels. Drink half that much and over time you will become physically dependent and suffer withdrawal -- severe headache, irritability and fatigue -- when you stop.
If caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, video lottery terminals, and a host of other things that are bad for many of us are going to be legal, cannabis should be too. Yes, there will be a risk, but it will be miniscule beside alcohol and tobacco. The risk to society associated with legalizing and regulating marijuana use just does not stack up against the waste of young human potential from thousands of criminal convictions.
Surely our justice system has better things to do than busting the chops of Chris Clay.
David Dauphinee is editor of The Free Press Saturday Forum section. His weekly column pokes around the internet for signs of life. He can be reached by phone at (519) 667-4518 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org