Pot prohibition supports "Al Capone-like figures," Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan says

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan put his name on the dotted line Thursday, calling for marijuana to be taxed and regulated, along with seven other B.C. mayors.

The open letter to Premier Christy Clark; Adrian Dix, leader of the B.C. New Democrats; and John Cummins, leader of the B.C. Conservative Party, comes on the heels of a similar letter from four former Vancouver mayors last December and one from four former B.C. attorneys general in February.

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Corrigan told the NOW in December that while he personally supported an end to pot prohibition, he would not make a public statement in his official capacity as a sitting mayor.

When asked why he changed his position on that, Corrigan said the health and safety concerns were a factor.

"I thought the fact that we had seen a coalition of ex-mayors, and ex-attorneys general and health professionals taking a stand on this issue really meant we had to take it to the next step, which is elected officials taking a position," he said in a phone interview Thursday.

Prohibition has not stopped the production and distribution of marijuana, Corrigan said, but it has lined the pockets of criminals, much like alcohol prohibition before it.

"We know alcohol prohibition didn't work. That doesn't mean there aren't problems with alcohol because there are - it still is a serious problem in our society, but prohibition simply turned the distribution of alcohol over to a criminal element," he said.

"We saw the rise of Al Capone-like figures making their money off of prohibition, and the same thing is happening with marijuana," Corrigan added. "People are making fortunes off of the distribution of marijuana illegally and in fact, we're not curing the problem at all, we're just pushing it underground. I think it's much better to take the attitude as we do with alcohol and cigarettes that while it is a vice, it's something that should be done in an upfront manner, the government should regulate and tax it, and there should be controls placed on it."

He disputed the idea that legalizing marijuana in Canada wouldn't be worthwhile so long as it's still illegal in the United States.

The effect on young Canadian's lives is a factor as well, he said.

"I think that the fact that we continue to give young people criminal records for this offense and continue to have people who live with the stigma of a criminal record for the use of marijuana is a serious problem," Corrigan said, "one that has individual effects that are way in excess of the act."

While he doesn't see things changing tomorrow, he hopes that provincial governments will begin to support a change to the current laws, he said.

"I think it is part of a building process," Corrigan said. "Polls and general public opinion indicate that the public wants to find a way to resolve the issue. They want to find a way to regulate rather than prohibit, and they want to find a way that they can discourage the use of marijuana among young people, and end the lock that crime has on the production of marijuana and distribution of marijuana."

He hopes this is a movement that spreads across the rest of Canada, and that the issue plays a part in the next federal election, he added.

The open letter - signed by Mayor Corrigan as well as the mayors of Vancouver, the City of North Vancouver, the District of Lake Country, Armstrong, Vernon, Enderby, and Metchosin - was put forward by the Stop the Violence B.C. coalition.

The criminal justice system is overburdened and needs to focus its resources on serious crime, according to Neil Boyd, a professor with Simon Fraser University's school of criminology.

Boyd joined the Stop the Violence B.C. coalition after being approached by Dr. Evan Wood, who started the coalition.

Boyd spoke to the NOW in February, saying he has advocated for marijuana law reform for many years.

"Unlike the other illegal drugs, which are used by less than one per cent of the population, marijuana is used by more than 10 per cent of the population," he said. "Given that it isn't nearly as dangerous a drug, for most people in most circumstances, from a public health perspective, as alcohol or tobacco."

The focus on the issue by former and current public figures followed a number of public shootings in Vancouver and Surrey during the winter, which police have indicated are likely gang-related.

The most high profile incident was the shooting death of Sandip Duhre at the Wall Centre Hotel in Vancouver on Jan. 17.

An Angus Reid poll, commissioned by the coalition this winter, that found that 77 per cent of British Columbians did not agree that marijuana possession should be a criminal offence and that 78 per cent said they were dissatisfied with the way politicians at the provincial level responded to problems stemming from the illegal marijuana industry.

Julie Di Mambro, press secretary for federal justice minister Rob Nicholson, did not address the issue of legalization in her statement to the NOW in February but made it clear things are not going to change any time soon.

"Our government is committed to ensuring criminals are held fully accountable for their actions and that the safety and security of law-abiding Canadians come first in Canada's judicial system," she wrote in an email. "We will continue to fight crime and protect Canadians so that our communities are safe places for people to live, raise their families and do business."

For the entire open letter from the mayors, go to www.stoptheviolencebc.org and click on the link for B.C. Mayors Call for Taxation and Regulation of Marijuana.

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