I have dedicated over 31 years of my life as a cop, finishing my police career as a chief. Most of that time was spent on Vancouver’s streets on beats related to drugs and gangs.
Fighting the war on cannabis and the violent gangs that feed off the conflict took up a vast amount of my time. The gangs and gangsters I pursued are too numerous to mention, but include household names such as the UN gang, the Hells Angels, Independent Soldiers, and Bindy Johal. These and other notorious B.C. gangsters profited by selling and exporting marijuana, while using the massive profits to import cocaine and guns into our province.
Our efforts to curtail gang wars over the cannabis industry were time-consuming, dangerous and expensive, up to and above $1 million per murder investigation. I led teams that had record-breaking arrests while removing enormous amounts of drugs from our streets. However, the successes that we enjoyed over the past three decades proved short-lived and ultimately fruitless.
In the early 1990s, I began to fully recognize the futility and the social, economic and public health costs of continuing marijuana prohibition.
And I came to one inescapable conclusion – cannabis prohibition fuels gang violence in B.C. All of the vaunted and much publicized policing efforts to control gang violence and the marijuana industry – the Uniformed Gang Task Force, the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team, the Marijuana Enforcement Teams, the hiring of hundreds more police offices across BC, civil forfeiture laws and tougher sentencing – have had little if any impact on the huge, highly profitable sector. In fact, costly law enforcement efforts have only served to drive the marijuana industry deeper into the hands of violent organized crime groups.
While working as the commanding officer of the Drug Unit and working towards a Masters degree in Criminology, I researched why massive investments in law enforcement did not reduce marijuana use or related crime. The reason? Money. The marijuana industry in B.C. is estimated to be worth up to $7 billion annually. The profits generated are enormous and, for some, worth killing for. When gang members are convicted and jailed, new and violent gang members are only too eager to use intimidation, guns and murder to take their place.
Many of my colleagues in policing and the criminal justice system understood that we were fighting a losing battle, and privately expressed their support to overturn marijuana prohibition and implement a strictly regulated system of marijuana sales to adults. At the same time, I took the concerns I was hearing privately and aired them publicly. In November 2001, I appeared before a Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs. My message to the Upper House was three-pronged: Pot prohibition doesn’t work. It leads to violence, massive costs to the taxpayer, and no reductions in supply or use. And alternatives, including regulation, should be considered.
When I suggested that marijuana prohibition has failed and contributes to organized crime, I took significant heat from others in the law enforcement community. Police chiefs coalesced around the unworkable status quo. Privately, within my department, I received more support. Many cops had had enough of the illicit marijuana industry’s ongoing succession of violence and death, with no end in sight. However, when your job, your pension, and your family’s livelihood are at stake, I understand the average cop’s hesitancy to step out of line and publicly question their superiors.
Today, I must speak for the police officers who cannot.
The endless cycle of gang violence must stop. I have joined Stop the Violence BC, a coalition of law enforcement officials, legal experts, medical and public health officials, and academic experts concerned about the links between cannabis prohibition in B.C. and the growth of organized crime and related violence in the province.
STVBC has enlisted current and former B.C. mayors, police officers, attorneys general, health officers and others to help overturn cannabis prohibition and implement a strictly regulated market for the adult consumption of cannabis. As with the end of alcohol prohibition in the 1930s, marijuana regulation today will remove the profits that drive gang violence and create safer, healthier communities.
Today, under cannabis prohibition, youth have easier access to marijuana than alcohol or tobacco. As a law enforcement leader and former Minister of Public Safety who has spent more than 33 years creating and enforcing laws, I know that a strictly regulated marijuana market for adult cannabis use would better protect youth through the use of regulatory tools that have proven so effective in reducing tobacco use.
The taxes resulting from a regulated cannabis market could support our most important public programs, including health and education. Rather than enforcing unworkable laws that breed violence, police would be free to focus on laws that actually protect citizens and improve public safety.
Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and majority support from British Columbians to reform existing cannabis laws, prohibition remains. It appears nothing has changed since my days on the street. In fact, recent headlines suggest events are worse. Randy Naicker, gang member, shot dead. A Red Scorpion leader gunned down. A full-patch member of the Hells Angels wounded in a public attack. Jonathan Bacon, killed outside a waterfront hotel in Kelowna. Innocent bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time. Retaliation.
For now, until we enact sensible cannabis laws, the beat goes on…
Kash Heed is a long-time law enforcement official, an Adjunct Professor at SFU, and more recently, the MLA for Vancouver-Fraserview. He is encouraging his current and former colleagues, friends, and associates to improve community health and safety by overturning marijuana prohibition. His views are his alone, and do not reflect those of the BC Liberal Party.