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Police, media misled British Columbians on marijuana, new book claims

Juan Palese, a marijuana grower, shows his crop on Dec. 18, 2013, outside of Montevideo, Uruguay, where the legalization of marijuana for recreational use has begun.

Matilde Campodonico/The Associated Press

As it turns out, Nov. 6, 2012, was a big day for marijuana laws.

Voters in Colorado and Washington state approved initiatives to legalize pot, setting the stage for the regulated production and sale of the drug. Several other jurisdictions in the U.S. have since followed suit.

In Canada on that same day, provisions of a new federal law came into effect that imposed strict mandatory minimums for drug-related crimes, including marijuana production.

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The contrast, says University of Victoria professor Susan Boyd, could not have been greater.

"This new law and our revived war on drugs in Canada is so contrary to what's going on around the world," says Boyd, who specializes in drug law and drug policy.

"It seemed like Canada was veering towards a very punitive model while the rest of the world was taking a closer look at mandatory minimums and abandoning them."

But the revisions to Canada's drug laws – contained in the Safe Streets and Communities Act, or Bill C-10, as it was previously known – did not happen in a vacuum, says Boyd.

Instead, Boyd argues in a forthcoming book that Canada's recent tough-on-crime approach to drugs is, in part, the product of decades of skewed media coverage and police messaging that has routinely exaggerated the dangers of the marijuana industry and its connection to organized crime.

For the book, titled Killer Weed: Marijuana Grow Ops, Media, and Justice, Boyd examined 2,500 articles from four major daily newspapers in British Columbia from 1995 to 2009.

She found news coverage about cannabis enforcement in B.C. frequently contained inaccurate information or exaggerated claims about the size and scope of the underground marijuana industry, the sorts of people associated with grow-ops and the industry's connection to gangs.

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Assertions by police – particularly the RCMP, which is responsible for policing in much of B.C. – were left unchallenged, she says, and politicians, in turn, relied on such misinformation to push for stricter drug laws.

For example, the news articles she examined repeatedly asserted marijuana grow-ops are inextricably linked to gangs and other criminal organizations. Police spokespeople were frequently quoted explaining that modern-day grow-ops are not "mom and pop" operations.

But Boyd says the federal government's own research does not support that claim.

She cited a Justice Department study that was completed in 2011, obtained by a reporter through an access to information request, that examined a random sample of 500 marijuana grow operations. Of those, just five per cent had apparent links to gangs or organized crime.

"This study wasn't released by our federal government, and you could see why," says Boyd.

"It doesn't fit with their Safe Streets and Communities Act, which frames marijuana grow-ops as always being associated with organized crime and gangs. I would say it's probably the reverse."

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Boyd's examination found the RCMP's public statements about the scope of the marijuana trade relied on research that tallied the number of "suspected" or "alleged" cases, rather than instances in which a grow-op was confirmed, which almost doubled the rate at which such activity had increased.

The RCMP – and, consequently, the news media – often linked marijuana grow-ops to guns, says Boyd. In contrast, an RCMP-funded study from 2005 found police found "firearms or other hazards" in only six per cent of grow-op cases examined.

And the value of the industry has been valued by RCMP spokespeople at anywhere from $1-billion to $8-billion a year, says Boyd.

Boyd suggests police and politicians may be exaggerating the dangers of the marijuana trade because standard say-no-to-drugs messaging hasn't worked. She notes almost half of Canadians admit to trying pot at least once.

"We can see from our drug-use statistics that Canadians use marijuana and a small percentage of people use it regularly," she says.

"So one way to continue with the drug enforcement law-and-order mandate is to talk about the dangerousness of the growers, and that seems to have created some headway."

The RCMP, which Boyd focuses on heavily in the book, declined to respond to her criticisms. A spokesman said the force typically does not respond to books, particularly those that have yet to be published.

"The RCMP does not provide responses on personal opinions and views expressed by authors," Sergeant Greg Cox said in an e-mail.

In the articles Boyd examined, the RCMP's claims were often repeated in the news media without question, she says.

The vast majority of the articles did not display any skepticism of the police claims, nor did they appear to have involved any independent investigation by reporters, she says.

"The RCMP and the police have become quite proficient in media relations," she says.

"At the same time, we saw that the mainstream media became less autonomous and there was a downsizing of reporters. The police and the RCMP are releasing these statements about marijuana grow-ops, so they [reporters] take that up, and there's very little time for them to do any real investigation."

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