Analyzing the extent of organized crime in the Canadian cannabis market

Media and police reports (that paint a picture of the cannabis market being run predominately by large criminal gangs that employ sophisticated and aggressive strategies) lack a systematic...

“Unsubstantiated media and police reports portray the cannabis industry as dominated by organized crime”. This is one of the several statements included in a review document addressed at the Task Force for the Legalization and Regulation of Marijuana. The document evaluates the magnitude and implication of organized crime in the Canadian market. It was compiled by Rielle Capler, Neil Boyd, and Donald MacPherson, and can be accessed here.

The authors start by addressing the difficulty of defining organized crime. Some commonly agreed characteristics include an organized hierarchy, rational profit through crime, the use of force or threat, and some form of corruption to guarantee legal immunity. The authors argue that of these characteristics, only rational profit applies to current producers.

The main point being made is that media and police reports (which paint a picture of the cannabis market being run predominately by large criminal gangs that employ sophisticated and aggressive strategies) lack a systematic approach and are not peer-reviewed. What then, does peer-reviewed evidence have to say?

In a random sample of 500 archived cases of marijuana production, a report from the Federal Ministry of Justice found that only 5% were associated with organized crime or street gangs. Another RMCP study estimated that 6% of growers had firearms on site, a value not far from the 5.5% of national citizens possessing firearms licenses. While being limited, the authors emphasize how this data largely contradicts the messages of the media, police, and some politicians.

International online surveys suggest a low prevalence of producers being involved in drug dealing, with most reporting no criminal offences at all — ranging from 62% in Finland to 87% in Belgium (in Canada this value went as high as 95%, but the sample was way too restricted). Other studies agree with the premise that most producers are small-growers who maintain good relationships with the rest of the community, and are indeed more likely to be victims of crime rather than perpetrators. It is important to note that these studies rely on voluntary self-reports and some are more than one or two decades old.

In raising these points, the authors gloss over the fact that even though most growers are small independent producers, they only represent a tiny share of the cannabis market. Take, for instance, a recent Spanish study showing that half of all the plantations seized by the police contained no more than 42 plants, and while these tended to belong to otherwise law-abiding citizens, they accounted for less than 3% of the market production. Big indoor plantations, which were more likely to be run by larger teams and to be associated with criminal offenses, contributed to the majority of cannabis in circulation.

This aspect is once again ignored when the authors link the role of small producers to the large economic value of the illicit cannabis market. Instead of addressing these issues, they point out the attitudes of small producers towards market legalization and regulation, citing two studies from 2015 that highlight how most small-scale growers in Australia and Western cultures welcome some sort of official licensing and regulation under a non-prohibitionist regime.

The authors conclude by calling for a more evidence-based policy that incorporates systematic peer-reviewed findings. They also suggest that representatives from the current market be consulted, given their experience and vocal interest in the creation of thoughtful regulations.

“We recommend that the government base the new cannabis regulations on the best available evidence, to provide a balanced approach that further restricts the operation of organized crime, while allowing for the involvement of a variety of independent producers in the emerging legal market.”

Featured image from torontosun.com

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