North Island College criminology instructor/addictions consultant Geri Bemister squared off with pot activist Marc Emery, among others, in a panel discussion about Canadian marijuana laws, Wednesday at UVic.
Emery was recently released from prison in the U.S., where he was incarcerated on drug charges.
The panel also included Jim O’Rourke, executive director of VisionQuest Recovery Society which helps people heal from addiction through better lifestyle choices.
A certified interventionist, Bemister is a proponent of educated decisions as opposed to simply legalizing pot. On one hand, she notes the harms of marijuana are underrated and underreported.
At the same time, she realizes that room exists for policy or legislative reform in the area of medicinal substance use.
“I think there’s definitely reform but not legalization, so we’ll look at a different strategy, perhaps a ticketing strategy,” Bemister said. “It’s not an economic solution to legalize a harmful substance. That’s not a way in which we function as a country. There’s a myth out there that a lot of people are sitting inside our institutions for simple possession of marijuana, and that’s simply not true.”
She is not opposed to the decriminalization component.
Having worked with police and correctional officers, Bemister notes that police are not interested in backing up the courts with arrests and charges of simple possession. According to Bemister, typically, an officer who finds a person smoking pot will discover the person is also intoxicated, has pending warrants and perhaps is in possession of more harmful drugs.
“It’s not just the marijuana for some of these individuals,” said Bemister, who worked two years at the Nanaimo Correctional Centre with a caseload exceeding 200 people. “Not one of them was in jail for simple possession of marijuana.”
She notes Holland was the first place to legalize pot. In that country, the number one drug of choice for people entering residential drug treatment is marijuana.
“Those are big lessons that we need to learn, and those are facts that are not changeable. I think we need to talk about them as a society.”
She notes, too, areas of the brain that are impacted by marijuana: short-term memory, automatic responses, motor skills, motivation. According to Statistics Canada, the largest demographic of pot smokers is between 17 and 24 years.
“That’s pretty scary,” Bemister said. “The hard sciences, they tell us the brain is still developing until the age of 26. So I don’t know why, if the majority of users are youth and we have that kind of harm to the developing brain, would government even think about sanctioning that.”
Bemister was part of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Crime Prevention, which kicked off a province-wide tour at NIC last January and released recommendations late in 2014. The panel spoke with more than 800 people about what’s working and not working in B.C. communities. One issue was prolific offenders — mostly petty criminals — some of whom have up to 60 convictions.
“They’re not getting the help they need through the correctional system,” Bemister said.
Recently in Ottawa, she participated in the National Summit on Addiction Recovery, where a commitment was signed to recognize addiction as a health condition worthy of services to support recovery. Money will be invested into anti-drug strategy programs.