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“THERE’S WHAT’S ON PAPER AND THEN THERE’S WHAT HAPPENS, OUT ON THE SIDEWALK”: CANNABIS USERS KNOWLEDGE AND OPINIONS OF CANADIAN DRUG LAWS SERGE BROCHU, CAMERON DUFF, MARK ASBRIDGE, PATRICIA GAIL ERICKSON This paper explores the knowledge and opinions of cannabis users regarding Canadian laws regulating possession of cannabis. Our study is based on data from 165 in-depth interviews with adult cannabis users from four Canadian cities. Our participants revealed a limited awareness of cannabis policy in Canada. When researchers informed them about actual Canadian laws, the majority of participants regarded the specified laws as “harsh,” “excessive,” “absurd” and/or “ridiculous.” In practice, the common experience of participants suggests the existence of two __________ Serge Brochu, Ph.D., is the General Secretary of the International Forum of Public Universities (IFPU) and full professor at the School of Criminology of University of Montreal. He is the co-director of Recherche et intervention sur les substances psychoactives—Québec (RISQ). He also serves as President of the scientific commission of the International Criminology Society and he is a member of the steering committee of the International Association of French Speaking Criminologists (I.A.F.S.C.). His research themes are on drugs/crime relationships, treatment of addict offenders, and program evaluation. Cameron Duff, Ph.D., is Monash Fellow in the Social Sciences and Health Research Unit (School of Psychology and Psychiatry) at Monash University, Melbourne Australia. Duff’s research interests include the study of place, health and human development with a particular focus on the array of social, affective, and material resources particular places make available to support health and development. Duff has explored these interests in studies of youth development, substance use and mental health in both Canada and Australia using a range of qualitative and ethnographic approaches. Mark Asbridge, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, Dalhousie University. His research program is in the areas of addictions, public and population health, and public policy, with a particular interest in the intersection of substance use and various health outcomes, and is informed and critiqued by social science theory. Patricia Gail Erickson, Ph.D., has been a Senior Scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and before that the Addiction Research Foundation, for over 30 years. She is also Adjunct Professor of Sociology and Criminology, and a former Director of the Graduate Collaborative Program in Addiction Studies [CoPAS], at the University of Toronto where she teaches and supervises graduate students. Prior and ongoing research projects have examined the links between drug use and violence in groups of students, at-risk youth, treatment samples and marginalized women. Drug policy and harm reduction continues to be a focus in these projects.

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BROCHU, DUFF, ASBRIDGE, ERICKSON sets of enforcement practice in Canada—“there’s what’s on paper and then there’s what happens, out on the sidewalk.” We situate our analysis of these practices in the context of broader debates regarding the putative normalization of drugs like cannabis in Canada. We conclude that greater consideration of the character of local law enforcement practices has the capacity to add further conceptual and analytical clarity to existing theories of normalization.

INTRODUCTION

This paper explores the knowledge and opinions of cannabis users regarding Canadian laws regulating the possession and consumption of cannabis. We begin with the observation that there is a clear gap between how cannabis is regulated and how policy is enforced, day-to-day, by the policing community. This gap has likely produced a great deal of uncertainty among both cannabis users and the general public in Canada, regarding the legal status and penalty provisions related to cannabis. It has also contributed to what we, and many others, see as the increasing normalization of cannabis in Canada and elsewhere (Erickson, 1980; Erickson & Hathaway, 2010; Erickson & Murray, 1986; Hathaway, Erickson, & Lucas, 2007; Measham, Newcombe, & Parker, 1994; Osborne & Fogel, 2008; Shukla, 2005). A key question, then, is how this uncertainty has shaped users’ knowledge and opinions of cannabis policy in Canada. We are not only interested in users’ formal knowledge of the law but also how they come to understand and interpret cannabis policy and its enforcement, both at a national level and within their local communities. It is our contention that these issues have important implications for contemporary debates regarding the putative normalization of drugs like cannabis in Canada and elsewhere (Duff, 2005; Erickson & Hathaway, 2010). Our data suggest that existing theoretical treatments of normalization should be refined to include greater consideration of the character of local law enforcement practices. Such refinements have the capacity to add significant conceptual and analytical insights to the study of drugs and normalization in specific settings and populations (see also Measham & Shiner, 2009). In developing these arguments, we first provide an overview of cannabis use in Canada, along with a brief historical policy review of cannabis control in this country. Next, we draw on data from in-depth interviews with 165 adult cannabis users from four Canadian cities (Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, & Halifax), to explore users knowledge and opinions regarding cannabis law. We close with a discussion of these findings in relation to existing research and theory on the normalization of illicit drug use, suggesting ways in which our work reflects on this theoretical approach. CANNABIS NORMALIZATION IN CANADA

The varied nature of cannabis policy and its apparent disjuncture with policing and enforcement practices has, in our view, contributed to the normalization of 96

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cannabis in Canada (Erickson & Hathaway, 2010). The idea of normalization as it pertains to illicit drug use first emerged in the work of Howard Parker, Fiona Measham, and colleagues (Measham, Newcombe, & Parker, 1994; Measham, Parker, & Aldridge, 1998; Parker, Aldridge, & Measham, 1998; Parker 2005; Parker, Williams, & Aldridge, 2002), who have conducted a series of studies in recent decades exploring the normalization of illicit drug use in the UK, particularly within youth populations. Parker and colleagues have documented the growing normalization of “recreational” drug use, understood as, “the occasional use of certain substances in certain settings and in a controlled way” (Parker, 2005: 206). This kind of recreational use represents a process of “reasoned choice,” whereby youth assess a range of factors including risk to health, getting caught, and impairment of school or work performance in making decisions about drugs (Williams & Parker, 2001). For most youth, this leads to the moderation of drug consumption and the integration of this consumption into one’s leisure time (Parker, Williams, & Aldridge, 2002). From this perspective, the essential idea behind normalization is that, “stigmatized or deviant individuals or groups become included in many features of everyday life as their identities or behavior become increasingly accommodated and perhaps eventually valued” (Parker, 2005, p. 205). This pattern of infrequent and situation specific use characterizes most cannabis use in Canada (Adlaf, Begin, & Sawka, 2005; Hathaway, 2004a, 2004b), leading some to argue that cannabis use has become normalized in Canada consistent with Parker and colleague’s normalization thesis (Erickson & Hathaway, 2010; Osborne & Fogel, 2008) . The normalization thesis propounded by Parker (2005) and colleagues identifies six indicators of drug normalization: 1. Increasing access and availability of illicit drugs in the community. 2. Increasing prevalence of this drug use. 3. Increasingly tolerant attitudes towards drug use among both users and nonusers. 4. Future expectations about drug use among current abstainers. 5. The “cultural accommodation” of drug cultures in youth oriented film, TV, and music. 6. More liberal policy shifts. The last of these indicators is of most interest to us in the context of our analysis of Canadian cannabis policy and cannabis users’ knowledge and opinions of Canadian cannabis laws more directly. CANNABIS USE AND CANNABIS POLICY IN CANADA

Prior to 1923 when cannabis was added to the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act, there were no restrictions on the consumption of cannabis in Canada and hemp and related products were widely available (Erickson, 1980). In fact, the recreational WINTER 2011

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use of cannabis was not well known before the 1960’s, with virtually no convictions reported until the first wave of cannabis users started appearing before the courts in that decade (Giffen, Endicott, & Lambert, 1991). In 1970, an estimated 3.5% of the Canadian population reported having ever used cannabis and 1% reported pastyear use (Le Dain, 1973). By 1978, 17.2% reported lifetime use (Rootman, 1979). These numbers have increased steadily over the past four decades (Thomas, Flight, Richard, & Racine 2006), although slight decreases have been reported since 2000 (Health Canada, 2009). In 2009, more than two in five Canadian adults (42.4% of Canadians 15 years and older) reported having tried cannabis in their lifetime, and 10.6% reported past year use (more than a one-quarter of 15–24 years old), whereas only 2.1% admit to having used any other illicit drugs in the past year (Health Canada, 2009). While rates have marginally decreased since 2004, prevalence remains very high given that cannabis is still illegal in Canada. In Canada, drug prohibition laws are part of the federal criminal law, found in variously named statutes, and they supersede any provincial regulations (Erickson, 1980; Solomon, 1988). The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA), adopted in 1996, currently constitutes the main drug legislation in Canada. This act prohibits the possession, distribution, production, importation and exportation of cannabis. Trafficking penalties have recently changed (Schedule 2 and Schedule 7) to impose 5 years less a day for possession of less than 3 kg, while life imprisonment was retained for larger amounts. A separate Schedule 8 for summary offences for possession of less than 1 g of hashish or 30 g of marijuana was created, separating cannabis from opiates and cocaine for the first time since 1923. The minimum penalties for a first offence of simple possession, however, can be up to 6 months imprisonment and a $1000 fine, and have remained unchanged since 1969, when the Narcotic Control Act (NCA) first provided the fine option. Other options that can be imposed include absolute discharge and conditional discharge with probation, but the norm is a small fine, around $100–200 or discharge. In some jurisdictions, diversion programs are in place, allowing those charged to admit their guilt, do community service, and avoid a criminal record (Erickson, Hathaway, & Urquhart, 2004). In 2007, 47,000 people were arrested for possession of marijuana (see Figure 1); this is a small fraction of the more than 3,000, 000 Canadians having used cannabis in the same year, reflecting the low likelihood of arrest that has characterized cannabis enforcement in contemporary times when 1% of users were estimated to be detected (Le Dain, 1972). Traditional legal control policies, rooted in general deterrence theory, rest on the assumption that potential offenders are aware of the existence of the law and the likely penalties that will result from arrest (Le Dain, 1973). Studies of cannabis possession offenders over the years in Toronto courts have demonstrated that even 98

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CANNABIS USERS KNOWLEDGE AND OPINION OF CANADIAN LAWS FIGURE 1. EVOLUTION OF INCIDENTS RECORDED BY POLICE BY DRUG TYPE, CANADA 1988–2007

those directly exposed to legal intervention have an imperfect knowledge of the law and the available penalties (Erickson, 1980; Erickson & Murray, 1986). For example, in a study carried out in 1974–75, only 18% of cannabis possession offenders could correctly name the statute (NCA) under which they had just been sentenced; twice as many named the Food & Drugs Act, which had been discussed at that time in the media as a possible replacement to the NCA, and almost half said they simply “didn’t know” (Erickson, 1980, p. 129–131). Less than one in six could correctly identify the maximum penalty they could have received. Replications of this study in 1981 and in 1994 also found that offenders interviewed at court were still very unaware of the law and penalty structure, tending to underestimate the available penalties despite experiencing the reality of the law that had brought them to court (Erickson, Hyshka, & Hathaway, 2010). A similar lack of legal knowledge regarding cannabis has been observed in the general population. For instance, a population based survey in Toronto in 2004 found that one in five respondents believed that possession of cannabis was now legal (10%) or only an offence if consumed in public (9%) (Hathaway, Erickson, WINTER 2011

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& Lucas, 2007, p. 50). About the same proportion of participants correctly named the statute and legal penalties as gave the wrong answer or admitted they did not know (about 40%, respectively) (Hathaway et al., 2007). Thus it would appear that the general public and users themselves, even those who are arrested, display considerable ignorance of Canadian cannabis laws. It might be argued that the ignorance of cannabis policy observed in Canada can be traced, in part, to the ongoing legal debates and indecision that has characterized the direction and nature of cannabis prohibition in Canada (Erickson & Hathaway, 2010). For instance, in 2002, two important reports on drug legislation were drawn up by Canadian Parliamentary committees: the Senate Special Committee Report on Illegal Drugs and the Special Committee on the Non-medical Use of Drugs Report (by the House of Commons). The Senate report advocated legalizing every drug and making cannabis legally available to those 16 years or more, while the Commons report recommended decriminalizing cannabis possession (Senate, 2002; House of Commons Report, 2002). In addition, Canadian courts had made recent decisions involving both medical and recreational use that challenged, “the constitutionality of the cannabis prohibition under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms” (Erickson & Oscapella, 1999, p. 13). A bill (C-38) was introduced in 2003 supporting the decriminalization of individual possession of small amounts of cannabis by creating a non-criminal, ticketable, federal offence under the Contraventions Act (Hyshka, 2009). However, this initiative, and its successors, died out after extensive review in committee, and the election of a new government (led by the Federal Conservative Party) in 2006 (Hyshka, 2009). Since that time, there have been no new legislative initiatives towards the liberalization of Canada’s cannabis law; on the contrary, new bills have been introduced to impose mandatory minimum sentences for cannabis cultivation and other supply offences, and to make the process of obtaining a pardon more difficult (Erickson et al., 2010). It is interesting to note that the questioning of the relevance of existing drug policies around 2002 by two very important federal committees coincided with a halt in the upward trend in cannabis-related incidents reported by police that had been observed in the 1990s. Indeed, after the significant increase in such incidents during the 1990s, their numbers declined and subsequently stabilized (Figure 1). Similarly, debates regarding the new regulations permitting the cultivation of industrial hemp in 1998, and providing access to marijuana for medical use in 2001, have further confused the legal status of cannabis (Hathaway & Rossiter, 2007). THE CURRENT STUDY

Our study aims to explore cannabis users’ knowledge of the legal status of cannabis possession in Canada in light of the manifest tensions in Canadian policy between the character of cannabis regulation, which remains staunchly prohibitionist, 100

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and the routine defiance of these laws among large sections of Canadian society. Our study explores how the law is understood and interrogated by users, and the ways this legal knowledge shapes user’s cannabis use behaviors in a national and local context. Our broader aim is to examine the impact of users’ attitudes, knowledge and opinions in terms of the apparent normalization of cannabis in Canada. METHOD

Data for this study are drawn from the Four Provinces THC and Tobacco Study (4POTTS), a multi-site project involving 202 cannabis and tobacco users residing in four Canadian cities—Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver (see Hathaway et al., 2010, for a detailed description of sample and methods). The current study is based on 165 participants who reported being regular users of cannabis (either cannabis alone n= 98 or in combination with tobacco n=67). They were recruited via a Respondent Driven Sampling (RDS) protocol designed to access hidden populations (Heckathorn 2002; Hyshka et al., 2010). Sampling focused on identifying adult, socially-integrated, regular cannabis users. Eligibility criteria were defined as: 1. Someone who used cannabis as least twice a month or at least 24 times a year for at least five years. 2. Being either employed (including work inside the home) or a full-time student. 3. Having stable housing, for at least six months in the past year. 4. To be between the ages of 20 to 49. Participants were asked to complete a short questionnaire (usually less than 20 minutes) and a semi-structured interview (that lasted between 40 and 70 minutes). All participants were compensated 20 dollars and received an entry into a draw for a $500 shopping mall gift certificate for each person they successfully recruited to the study (up to a maximum of 3). The interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed. The transcripts were then analyzed using a form of qualitative analysis outlined by Kirby, Greaves, & Reid (2006) and based on grounded theory. Of the 165 regular cannabis users, 55% were male with an average age of 30.5 years. The majority of respondents were Canadian born (91%) and of European decent (87%), and were evenly divided across the four participating cities. One in three respondents was single, with the rest reporting either being married, in a common-law or long term relationship. Three-quarters of respondents rented their accommodations. Finally, in terms of socioeconomic indicators, over 50% of respondents reported having completed a university degree (undergraduate or post graduate work), and just over 50% reported working full time, 18% were selfemployed, and 13% worked part time while the rest were students. Just over 60% reported a household income of greater than $35,000. WINTER 2011

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BROCHU, DUFF, ASBRIDGE, ERICKSON TABLE 1. SOCIO-DEMOGRAPHIC DESCRIPTORS OF 165 ADULT CANNABIS USERS

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Table 2 outlines respondents’ cannabis use practices. On average, participants started using cannabis at 15.4 years old. They smoked an average of two joints on a typical day. They reported having used cannabis on four days during the week before the interview. Forty four percent of participants reported spending more than $50 on cannabis during the month before the interview. The vast majority (70%) reported purchasing their cannabis from friends connected to suppliers. The three main locations where participants smoke cannabis were at home (95%), at friend’s home (78%), and at parties (72%). Very few reported smoking cannabis at work (8%) or at cafés/restaurants (8%). On average they reported knowing many other cannabis users.

TABLE 2. CANNABIS USE DESCRIPTORS OF 165 ADULT CANNABIS USERS

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Consistent with our recruitment protocol, our sample predominately includes stable cannabis users who work, are well educated, and earn a solid income. Their cannabis use is well integrated into their daily lives and comes at financial costs that are well within the means of the majority of users. Most have large networks of cannabis using friends and situate their use, for the most part, in private spaces like the home or at parties. Use at work or school is limited, as is use in other public places with the exception of open spaces such as parks. RESULTS

Interviews sought to probe respondents’ knowledge and opinions regarding Canada’s existing policy and legal arrangements as they pertain to cannabis. Detailed thematic coding of the interview transcripts was conducted (Flick, 2009), revealing four distinctive research themes as follows: “unsure about Canadian laws;” Canadian laws are “too harsh;” Canadian laws and policies are not enforced consistently; and finally “happy with the status quo.” Each of these research findings will be detailed below. UNSURE ABOUT THE SPECIFIC CHARACTER OF THE LAW

Somewhat surprisingly given the average duration of each participant’s cannabis “careers” (Table 2), almost all participants were uncertain about the specific character of existing legal and policy arrangements, reporting a range of partial and sometimes erroneous beliefs about Canadian laws. Summing up the views of many, one participant noted, “I really don’t know what it (the law) is, and that, that is my shame and I should be more aware.” This kind of uncertainty—and the sense that participants perhaps ought to know more about Canadian law—was widespread among the sample. Interestingly, a number of participants argued that this uncertainty was the result of recent media debates regarding cannabis use. As one participant noted: “You see so much in the media, so many different things and to be honest, I really am confused as to where marijuana lays in the legal realm.” Others added that they believed that Canada’s laws differed from province to province (which they do not), such that it was easy to become confused about the details of the law in any one province or city. Despite uncertainties about the details of Canadian law, most respondents reported that the law establishes a broad distinction between the possession of cannabis for personal use and the supply or trafficking of cannabis. Indeed, a significant minority of participants believed that the possession of cannabis for personal use was “basically legal, or you know kind of tolerated” as one participant described it. Most suggested that convictions for cannabis possession were very rare, and in those instances where individuals were convicted the resulting sanction was typically modest—no more than a warning or “a slap on the wrist.” In fact, only 10% of our 104

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cannabis users had ever been arrested for possession (despite an average 15 year career of use) and just 5% had been found guilty of possession. Of those eight individuals only two report having been incarcerated. Perhaps reflecting this broader experience, one participant added, “it really depends on quantity—(police) aren’t going to take you to court for smoking a joint right?” In contrast, all respondents reported the belief that large scale cultivation and/or trafficking of cannabis were serious offenses that typically attracted significant sanctions ranging from large fines to jail-terms, or both. Nonetheless, very few participants were able to specify the kinds of criminal sanctions that typically follow a conviction for trafficking. Participants reported widely divergent views regarding the quantity of cannabis required for a charge of trafficking or supply to be sustained—with reports ranging from a few grams to several pounds or kilograms—and similarly divergent views regarding the likelihood of custodial sentences following conviction. Taken together, uncertainties about the detail of Canadian law and/or erroneous beliefs about these arrangements seem to stem from the view common to almost all participants that the likelihood of being detected by law enforcement while contravening cannabis laws was so low that there was little incentive to become informed about the law. The view here seemed to be that as long as one was not involved in the commercial cultivation, trafficking, or supply of cannabis, then one had little reason to fear detection and/or prosecution. For a significant number of participants, the occasion of completing this interview was reportedly the first time in a long time that they had reflected on the subject of Canada’s cannabis laws, such was their indifference to them. This finding will be taken up further in the discussion below. EXISTING LAWS ARE HARSH OR EXCESSIVE

In anticipation of widespread uncertainty about the nature of Canada’s cannabis regulations, interviewees were given a short excerpt from the relevant Canadian statute to read (Table 3), and then asked to comment on it. Most participants expressed shock and surprise when shown the text, with most having assumed that existing laws were more “permissive” or “liberal.” As such, the vast majority of participants regarded the specified laws as “harsh,” “excessive,” “absurd,” “unfair,” and/or “ridiculous.” Almost all participants expressed the view that the private use of cannabis was a perfectly legitimate personal choice that should not attract any kind of police or criminal sanction. One participant noted that “The justice system is just so out of whack.” While another added that the relevant laws were an instance of “exerting power that just doesn’t need to be exerted.” Developing this theme, a large number of respondents argued that cannabis ought to be treated the same as alcohol and/or tobacco, with most respondents arguing either that cannabis was “the same” as alcohol and tobacco, or that cannabis WINTER 2011

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BROCHU, DUFF, ASBRIDGE, ERICKSON TABLE 3. EXCERPT FROM THE RELEVANT CANADIAN STATUTE TO BE READ BY THE PARTICIPANT DURING THE INTERVIEW

was “safer” or somehow “better” than these substances. A number of participants contrasted alcohol and cannabis, decrying the former for the kinds of anti-social behavior commonly associated with its misuse (like fights, violence, accidents, and so on), while celebrating cannabis for its apparent lack of harmful side effects; as one interviewee stressed “I’ve never seen someone stoned start a fist-fight you know?” Other respondents argued that cannabis should have the same legal status as tobacco, with restrictions on the purchasing and availability of cannabis, as well as the kinds of places where it was legal to consume the drug. Participants agreed that like tobacco, minors should not be able purchase cannabis freely, while consuming cannabis should be restricted to places where one was not going to “bother” or “annoy other people, like in a restaurant or something.” In a further criticism of the Canada’s cannabis laws, a number of interviewees reported the view that such laws are inconsistent or “out of step” with contemporary Canadian attitudes and values. Canadians were reported to be a “tolerant,” “openminded,” “fair,” and/or “sophisticated” people, which contrasted sharply with the “punitive” and “excessive” character of the relevant cannabis regulations. One respondent noted that “I just don’t think the law’s in line with the way Canadians actually think.” Another added that “I don’t think they (cannabis laws) represent the true Canadian spirit and our open attitudes, ‘cause I think Canadians do all have a really open attitude and I think most Canadians wouldn’t even mind legalized weed.” The opinions of our participants appear to be in line with polls of the general Canadian population. For example, in 1975, 26% of Canadians supported the legalization of marijuana, while as of 2008 support had risen to 53% (Angus 106

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Reid, & Strategies, 2008). Many participants made explicit reference to the issue of “medical marijuana” in making this argument about the clash of Canadian law and social values. A large number of participants offered explicit endorsement of cannabis’s ostensibly therapeutic properties, arguing in turn that cannabis should be made available for medicinal purposes for all who might desire it. LAWS AND POLICIES ARE NOT ENFORCED CONSISTENTLY

An important distinction was made by a number of interviewees between the ‘letter of the law’ as prescribed in the relevant cannabis statutes and the everyday enforcement of these laws. Interviewees who raised this point almost always identified a significant discrepancy between the law as written and its enforcement, stating that enforcement was typically more arbitrary, “inconsistent” or “lax” than the prescribed law. Describing this distinction, one participant said: I’d say that on paper, it’s (the law), uh that’s too severe. I mean that would be too severe if they actually followed that. But I think the way it’s enforced...nobody (police) would do that (what’s specified in law). Echoing this view, another interviewee added that: It (the law) really doesn’t matter cause I mean I’ve been caught like two or three times smoking a joint by police officers and they just take it from you and stamp on it and tell you to go home you know? They’re pretty good about that. I mean they know the difference between somebody smoking a joint and hard drugs. Some participants felt that such inconsistencies amounted to the de facto decriminalization of cannabis use, given the unlikelihood of being formally charged with a cannabis related offence. This view was particularly common among interviewees from Vancouver. Summing up this attitude, one interviewee said that: No one has actually had a marijuana charge at Main and Hastings (East Vancouver) for a number of years now because that would just be silly, and a waste of resources. In East Vancouver it’s kind of just, it’s (cannabis use) kind of de facto . . . you know, really it’s not a big deal, the worst they (police) can do is take it (cannabis) away from you right? Participants in all four sites agreed that law enforcement typically exercised a good deal of discretion in dealing with the personal use of cannabis, akin to that described in the quotations above, and while interviewees largely applauded this discretion, they also stressed that this discretion sometimes produced arbitrary results. One participant stated that: It all depends on the cop, I mean I don’t think it really matters what the law is. So if you get a cop on a bad day, or if they’re like in a WINTER 2011

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bad mood or something then they can give you a lot of trouble but mostly things are ok. Some interviewees added that inconsistencies between the letter of the law and its enforcement were the cause of cannabis users’ common ignorance of the drug’s actual legal status. In the main, interviewees stressed that what was important was the nature of local law enforcement and the kinds of attitudes that individual law enforcement officers expressed, rather than the law itself. Moreover, perceptions regarding the attitudes of local law enforcement officers were much more important in shaping local cultures of cannabis use, and individual behaviors more directly, than the nature of relevant cannabis laws. Given such disjunctions, interviewees based their cannabis use behaviors on their own observations of law enforcement, the views of their friends and broader attitudes prevailing in their community. HAPPY WITH THE STATUS QUO

The putative disjunction between cannabis regulation and the local enforcement of these laws led a small number of participants to express broad satisfaction with existing arrangements in Canada. With local law enforcement officials perceived as generally exhibiting pragmatic, tolerant attitudes, some participants suggested that existing legal and policy settings, “seem to be working ok.” Important here was a judgment about the likelihood of actually being prosecuted in relation to one’s own cannabis use. With the vast majority of participants holding the view that with a few simple precautions, one could easily evade censure or prosecution, there simply appeared to be little reason to amend the existing laws. As one participant put it, “I would say that I’d be happy to keep it (the law) that way only because I’ve never had a bad experience with the law on cannabis so I mean it’s really not a problem.” A small number of participants expressed support for the status quo in Canada in light of their concerns about the prospect of decriminalization and introduction of government taxation of cannabis. Some feared that decriminalization might lead to heavy taxation of cannabis, akin to tobacco, that would lead to large increases in the price of cannabis. Others worried that government intervention in the production and distribution of cannabis would fundamentally undermine local cultures and contexts of cannabis use, shifting local customs and threatening cannabis’s “underground” or “alternative” cultural valence. As one interviewee put it, “that’s what makes it fun, because it’s illegal.” DISCUSSION

We began this paper pointing to the apparent disjunction between cannabis policy and enforcement in Canada, while articulating the possible impacts of this discrepancy, particularly as it relates to the putative normalization of cannabis in Canada and the attempt to generate theoretical models of this normalization. This 108

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set the stage for the interrogation of our project data, and our efforts to clarify one of the most significant, though largely unrecognized, features of normalization in Canada—namely, user’s knowledge and opinions regarding cannabis prohibition. Our participants, many of them lifetime cannabis users, consistently betrayed a limited awareness of cannabis policy in Canada that either reflected a misunderstanding of the legal status of cannabis, whether cannabis was legalized or decriminalized, and whether exemptions for possession of small amounts exist, as well as a general ignorance of the associated penalties (i.e., fine, incarceration). These findings are consistent with a number of existing studies concerning legal knowledge among both arrestees and the general public in Canada (Erickson, 1980; Erickson & Hyshka, 2010). Our findings regarding the widespread ignorance of existing penalties among regular cannabis users points once more to the growing inconsistencies in Canada between the promulgation of cannabis laws and their everyday enforcement. This inconsistency was manifested in many participants’ accounts of two sets of enforcement practices in Canada—as one participant memorably described it “there’s what’s on paper and then there’s what happens, out on the sidewalk.” As participants noted, what happens on the sidewalk is that police typically look the other way, at least when it comes to arrest and the laying of charges for cannabis use. Beyond asking users to stop using and to dispose of what they currently have in their possession, most users noted that they were left alone because, as one respondent put it, the police have “better things to do.” This leniency in enforcement was, however, conditional in that users were expected to acquiesce to the police’s request to stop using and to avoid making “too big a scene.” What’s more, the observed inconsistencies in local law enforcement in Canada undoubtedly make some contribution to participants’ more general uncertainly about the specific nature of Canada’s cannabis laws. As reported, participants mostly hold the view that the de facto nature of cannabis laws in Canada varies considerably from place to place; while cannabis is notionally prohibited across Canada, in practice the perceived legal status of cannabis use is far less certain. Equally important is the finding that the legal uncertainty concerning the status of cannabis use among cannabis users mediates their day to day use patterns. Among participants it was found that knowledge of local policing practices and/or the local enforcement of the law was of far greater pragmatic importance in shaping their consumption behaviors than knowledge of the law itself. These findings lend support to the classical tenets of deterrence theory, which note the relative greater importance of certainty of punishment (i.e. the perceived likelihood of arrest) over severity of sentence (Doob & Webster, 2003; Von Hirsch, Bottoms, Burey, & Wikshom, 1999). Given the perceived gap between the ‘letter of the law’ and its actual enforcement, WINTER 2011

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participants paid attention to local patterns of enforcement and basically ignored the law as written. As Erickson (1980) has previously noted of cannabis possession arrestees, their perceptions of the law were based on the sentences they saw being given out in court and what they themselves experienced, rather than law as formally prescribed in statutes. This suggests a very distinctive kind of risk management among cannabis users in Canada, based not on an understanding of the law, but on a much more informal knowledge of local enforcement practices. We would argue further that this development marks a distinctive feature of cannabis normalization in the Canadian context. More specifically, our findings suggest that the widespread ignorance of cannabis law in Canada has contributed to the normalization of cannabis use across the country. Many of the key indicators of Parker’s normalization thesis are clearly evident in Canada: cannabis use has risen in the last twenty years, attitudes towards cannabis use have become more liberal, and cultural representations of cannabis in the mainstream media have grown considerably. However, our findings suggest that some refinements may be needed in relation to the last of Parker’s six indicators of normalization, the liberalization of cannabis policy. In Canada, evidence regarding the liberalization of Cannabis policy is mixed at best (Erickson & Hathaway, 2010). While there has been much debate regarding the shift towards a more liberal policy stance, and much formal policy debate in the Canadian parliament in the early part of the 2000s, existing cannabis statutes have recently or are about to become slightly more conservative. The Canadian parliament has, on a number of occasions, wrestled with the notion of decriminalizing cannabis possession, only to fall short, while the growing legislative recognition of “medical marijuana” has largely been framed as a public health reform for a very small number of eligible Canadians (Hathaway & Rossiter, 2007). On the face of it, the absence of formal reforms to Canadian cannabis policies contradicts the last of Parker’s six indicators of normalization and thus ostensibly undermines our arguments regarding the putative normalization of cannabis use in Canada. However, we would stress that in fact cannabis control practices have become somewhat more liberal or permissive in most parts of Canada in recent decades – as our participants readily attest – it is just that this liberalization is discernible only at the level of law enforcement and not in relation to formal legal policies. Our findings suggest that the importance of policy practices such as law enforcement, particularly at the local level, offer far more effective indications of the normalization and/or denormalization of illicit drug use like cannabis than the law itself. This contention offers, what we would argue, is a highly novel take on the issue of normalization, one that merits further analysis in other settings and jurisdictions. Parker’s original normalization thesis does not speak to perceptions of the law, or 110

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the broader issue of the application of the law as a ‘barometer of normalization. Our findings would seem to indicate that both perceptions of the law among regular users, and evidence regarding the actual enforcement of illicit drug provisions at the local level, ought to be added to Parker’s original normalization schema as additional indicators or “barometers” of normalization and/or denormalization. Our findings suggest very strongly that the apparent liberalization of local law enforcement as it pertains to cannabis regulations in Canada stands as a powerful new facet of the normalization of cannabis use in Canada. Indeed, the analysis of local law enforcement practices and procedures is at least as important a feature of normalization (or its absence) as the study of legal regulations, statutes and by-laws. It is important to note of course that our research findings concern perceptions among regular cannabis users regarding the nature of local law enforcement. As well, our respondents are predominantly older, mainstream conventional adults who are possibly less vulnerable to police intervention than younger, more marginalized and visible cannabis users. Our research has not involved an attempt to verify these perceptions through the formal analysis of local law enforcement policies and protocols. We would conclude that this kind of formal analysis of local law enforcement procedures promises some exciting new directions for illicit drug policy research in Canada and elsewhere. The growing disjunction between the content of Canadian laws regarding cannabis and the enforcement (or lack thereof) of these laws in local areas has important implications for all facets of illicit drug policy in Canada, from prevention and harm reduction to drug treatment and policy debates. The apparent tension we have identified between the law and its enforcement in Canada surely cannot remain in place indefinitely. It remains to be seen what impact our findings might have on perennial calls for drug policy reform in Canada. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The authors would like to acknowledge our whole research team: Marie-Marthe Cousineau, Andrew Hathaway, David Marsh and thanks all our research assistants. REFERENCES

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