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Victoria police officer can advocate for drug legalization, tribunal rules

Cured flowers of cannabis intended for the medical marijuana market are shown at OrganiGram in Moncton, N.B., on April 14, 2016. OrganiGram is the only organic marijuana grower in Canada, and the only licensed grower east of Ontario.

Ron Ward/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A Victoria police officer who won a human-rights complaint against the force says "on the ground" experience led him to support drug legalization – and he says he doesn't think he's alone on the force.

Constable David Bratzer was awarded $20,000 last week after the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruled the Victoria Police Department violated his rights by preventing him from advocating for legalization. A civil-liberties group describes the ruling as precedent-setting.

Constable Bratzer filed the complaint after the force barred him from participating in the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which advocates for regulated legalization of illicit drugs. He was also banned from speaking at a panel discussing harm reduction in Victoria.

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Constable Bratzer said he formed his views on legalization after joining in the force in 2007 and noticing repeat arrests of addicts. He said he thinks many officers across forces hold similar beliefs.

"Police officers have valuable, on the ground experience when it comes to difficult issues that society grapples with and the tribunal recognized that," he said in an interview.

"There's lots of officers who do question this issue, but I think a lot of those same officers looked at what I was going through and the experiences I had and the effects on my career and said to themselves, I don't want that to happen to me."

The human-rights tribunal concluded that by restricting Constable Brazter's off-duty activity as a drug-policy reform advocate, the Victoria Police Department was discriminating on the basis of political belief. The 86-page decision was released on April 20, the same day plans for Canada-wide legalization were announced.

Micheal Vonn, policy director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the case clarified when a person's individual right to political participation crosses the line into breaching duty of loyalty to an employer.

"Broad-based, non-evidence-based concerns, are not enough to ground the employer's right to curtail your public speech in relation to a political view," Ms. Vonn said.

She said instances in which an employee does not speak up for political beliefs off-duty are common. An example, she said, is government employees who wish to advocate off-duty for changes to environmental regulation but are reluctant to do so.

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"It's critical to understand that you are not undermining the law by advocating, legally advocating, for change in the law."

Legally, employees are allowed to advocate off-duty for their political beliefs, she said, and added that in Constable Bratzer's case, he was careful not to compromise his employer with his political actions.

Darby Beck, the chief operating officer of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the group that Constable Bratzer wanted to participate in, said thousands of its members, primarily in the United States, have law-enforcement backgrounds and a handful, between five and 10, are active-duty officers.

"This sets a standard that more officers will be able to come forward and talk about what they believe in," she said.

The force issued a statement that said it accepted the decision.

"From the [Victoria Police Department's] perspective, we are pleased that the tribunal recognized our good faith efforts," said acting Chief Constable Del Manak in a statement.

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"It is important to accept this decision, learn what we can from it, and move forward as an institution."

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