During various media interviews of party leaders and political debates, the whole issue of “decriminalizing” versus “legalization” of marijuana remains a confusing matter to many taxpayers, both young and old. Without getting into partisan opinions on the matter, I’d like to clarify the differences in my view.

Currently, the illegal possession of marijuana is governed by the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, making it an offence in all provinces and territories if not under the authority of a valid medical exemption. Upon first conviction the maximum penalties are a fine of $1000 or 6 months in jail, or both, if in possession of less than 30 grams of the drug. Subsequent convictions and/or convictions for greater amounts will likely see greater penalties imposed.

You will also get a criminal record for a conviction, no matter how small the amount, which may impact future international travel, job prospects and more.

Possession of marijuana for the purposes of trafficking (much larger amounts), is understandably a more serious matter, as are trafficking, importing./exporting and cultivation (production) offences, on a sliding scale depending on the amounts of the drug involved.

To “legalize” possession, would make it no longer an offence at all. Nothing. No arrest, no ticket, no fine, no record. There would no longer be an incentive to not smoke it than there is to not smoke cigarettes.

Is marijuana a gateway drug to more harmful narcotics like cocaine and it’s derivatives and methamphetamine? The literature is very split on the issue. But do you really think many people start their drug use with cocaine or meth?

The research around the residual cognitive effects of marijuana use is similarly divided. Like most people, I clearly recall high school friends that went from seemingly bright and alert teenagers to people that seemed to live their life in a complete fog after regular smoking marijuana. Some of them haven’t seemed to recover to this day.

Yes, tobacco is harmful to your health too. That is obvious and well-documented. But at least there are government standards around the legal production of tobacco products in terms of chemical content and it isn't an intoxicant that impairs your abilities to drive, walk, talk and think. And other than the illegally manufactured tobacco that some choose to smoke due to the price differential and the smuggled cigarettes that continue to come into Canada from the U.S., organized crime groups do not traditionally benefit from the sale of tobacco. The overwhelming majority of marijuana that is used illegally in this country is directly related to organized crime groups.

It is not clear to me in the readings and the debates I’ve observed whether or not the Canadian government would selling, cultivation, etc., in a legalization strategy. Other than potential free-market benefits, I don’t see anything in it for Canadian society. On the other hand, does government want to become pot-growers for non-medical uses?

“Decriminalizing” simple possession of marijuana would take it out of the criminal court realm, but still make it an offence that could be dealt with by way of a fine that is levied through a ticket, much like drinking underage, speeding and most provincial law offences. Perhaps the provinces could take ownership and develop a legislative scheme for possession matters, but taking it out of the criminal courts makes total sense to me.

Nobody, including 99.9% of police officers, wants to see an otherwise good young person’s life and career prospects ruined over a couple of marijuana cigarettes. I tore up more “joints” and dumped them into the ditch than I ever laid charges for in my police career. In fact forcing the teenager to do that was even more fitting. Subsequently calling or knocking on the door of their parents was a pretty effective way to bring about behavioural change in most cases as well.

Let’s decriminalize simple possession transgressions but still discourage marijuana use through a non-criminal fine process. The criminal courts are busy enough dealing with serious crimes to be burdened with such trivial matters.

However. we still need to maintain strict criminal laws around possessing large quantities for the purpose of trafficking, as well as for the cultivation, production and selling of marijuana. We cannot allow organized crime to further flourish through full legalization. Government regulated marijuana grow operations for medicinal marijuana are presently going into full swing and will be challenging enough to manage, but I can’t imagine we will ever see government controlled production for recreational use, thankfully. Nothing good would come from that, save and except an abundance of late night comedy fodder.

This approach makes a great deal of sense to me and apparently to some – but not all – political candidates.

Chris Lewis served as Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police from 2010 until he retired in 2014. He can be seen regularly on CTV and CP24 giving his opinion as a public safety analyst.