RCMP and Hells Angels: Not as Different as We Think!

A lawyer practicing in Nanaimo once told me, “There’s only two gangs in town. One has a clubhouse and the other has a headquarters”.

The lawyer’s views were informed by what he considered to be the group’s ability to avoid convictions for breaking the law. When I later thought about what he said, the similarities between the organizations stirred my sociological imagination. As outrageous as the comparison may seem, there’s an element of truth to his comparison. Consider, for example, the following elements of these two social groups:

  • Both can be identified through their highly visible ‘uniforms’ which display paramilitary symbols and nomenclature indicating the organizational rank and status of their members.
  • The RCMP crest and Hells Angels insignia are copyright protected.
  • The RCMP and HA have fortress-style work/meeting places which exclude members of the public except on official business or by invitation.
  • Both groups elicit public deference – if not a certain element of fear.
  • Each group has a sophisticated process to screen membership. Members can be sanctioned by the group for rule infractions, up to and including banning members.
  • Both groups have a process for evicting members for breaking the rules – even if they have not broken the law.
  • The groups have public events (e.g., the RCMP Musical Ride and Nanaimo’s ‘Angels Acres’) to generate public support and funds for their respective organizations.
  • The Mounties and the HA have public relations designates who speak on behalf of their organizations.
  • Both groups have internal, specialized elite squads which protect key leaders (e.g., the ‘Nomads’ and Prime Minister Harper’s RCMP security detail).
  • Some young men aspire to members of either group, attracted to the social status and potential for upward mobility within the organizations.
  • Both groups raise money for charity (e.g., “Cops for Cancer” and participation with a Christmas “toy ride”).
  • Both organizations claim their members are generally law-abiding except for the occasional “bad apple”.
  • Both groups use force, including lethal force, to achieve their respective organizational mandates.
  • Members of each group are relatively insulated from conviction for homicides involved in the course of their activities.
  • The groups both stage ‘memorial rides’ for their ‘fallen members’.

There is something which attracts people to groups like these which offer camaraderie, public respect, and material security. The “gang”, broadly conceived, can be any identifiable status group including teachers, physicians, professors, and trades people such as mechanics and electricians (and their respective unions or professional organizations).

The sense of belonging and identity which gangs offer people can be developed to help foster a safer community. More on that topic in my next post: How compulsory military service will drive crime downward and foster healthy communities.

My apologies if I have offended members of either group with this comparison.

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The Immorality of Enforcing Marijuana Laws

The police should now admit that it is immoral for them to enforce the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) as it pertains to marijuana. Laws must be justified on some moral basis in order for them to be supported by the public. Without support, our police lose the moral authority to enforce cannabis laws.

Over 70% of British Columbians support research to evaluate the regulation of cannabis (from an Angus Reid poll conducted earlier this month[1]). This measure of public opinion is consistent a similar poll conducted in the fall of 2012 which indicated that a majority of Canadians (57%) are ready to see marijuana legalized.

cannabis_leaf_cannabis-229px

The law enforcement community influences Canadian’s perceptions about the evils of marijuana, richly sprinkled with war metaphors, the portrayal of cannabis producers and smokers as deviants, and the resultant chaos should the public contemplate legally tolerant alternatives.

One of the challenges for the police is to convince those of us (especially parents) who lived through the 70s and 80s that today’s pot is “more harmful”. They frequently tell us that the active ingredient in marijuana (THC) is found in higher concentrations when grown under the tender care of hydroponic lights. There’s at least two problems with this claim.

First, the insistence that higher THC concentrations makes marijuana dangerous is like arguing that whiskey is more dangerous than beer because it contains proportionately more alcohol. Cannabis users will smoke less to enjoy the same effects – just like those of us who drink a smaller quantity of Scotch than wine but still achieve the same cognitive pleasures.

It’s a tragic irony that more Canadians have died or been injured from the enforcement of marijuana laws, than from any harms caused by the herb itself. The sporadic gun violence in Lower Mainland streets is the direct consequence of criminalizing a product which the public demands in a marketplace where the government has surrendered its controlling shares to the business of criminal organizations.

Secondly, the harms created by cannabis are the result of its legal status , not its pharmacological properties which, for most users, are relatively benign according to the research examined by our own Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs in 2002. Any negative effects associated with cannabis can be mediated, according to a recent 2011 article in the Canadian Journal of Public Health by researchers with Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction at Simon Fraser University.

The law creates opportunities for a  black market and endangers the lives of citizens and police. The law is wrong. The law itself must be seen as criminal because of its consequences and must not be enforced by the police.

To have impact on cannabis markets, Parliament must regulate the domestic cultivation of marijuana so that the incentive for organized crime evaporates, except perhaps for a black market to supply smokers south of the 49th Parallel (except in those states which have already legalized cannabis).

The morally preferable alternative to the current failure of our so called “drug war” would be for police to take a bold stand like that of RCMP Commissioner Aylesworth Bowen Perry during Prohibition in 1917.

“No instruction whatsoever has been issued by me in regard to [enforcing prohibition],” he reminded his senior officers in Alberta. Unless otherwise notified, Perry told them unequivocally, prohibition “is not to be enforced by the Mounted Police”[2].

Declaring alcohol prohibition “unenforceable”, Commissioner Perry subsequently cancelled RCMP contracts to Alberta and Saskatchewan.

It’s unlikely that the same pronouncements about the abject failure of our drug laws will be heard from senior police officers anytime soon. Their interest is in advancing their careers and prestige in a police subculture where “takedowns” and “busting grow shows” get more kudos than informed political activism within the ranks. Consequently, we must elect politicians who promise to put an end to the violence associated with the unregulated distribution of cannabis.

According to the latest Angus Reid poll on the topic, 44% of respondents will have more favourable opinions of BC politicians who support “an ethically approved research study seeking to evaluate the impacts of a taxation (i.e., legalization) and regulation strategy to control adult cannabis use”.

Politicians can give back to the police some of their moral authority by not requiring them to enforce laws which cause far more harm than good.

It’s what we the people expect from you.


[1] The question went as follows:

Preamble. Many U.S. states are reforming their marijuana laws including Washington state, which has legalized the adult use of marijuana. British Columbia has experienced major unintended consequences resulting from marijuana prohibition including the proliferation of illegal marijuana grow ops and related organized crime concerns. Researchers in B.C. are interested to conduct a research trial to assess if a strictly regulated (i.e. legal) system for adult marijuana purchases could cut profits to organized crime, raise tax revenue and better protect young people from the free availability of marijuana that exists under prohibition. The study would be ethically and federally approved, involve a pilot site in one community, require key stakeholder support and be halted if unanticipated harms emerged.

Question 1. Do you support or oppose a B.C.research trial conducted by local experts and health scientists aiming to evaluate whether the taxation (i.e., legalization) and strict regulation of adult marijuana use could reduce profits to organized crime, raise tax revenue and better protect young people from the availability of marijuana that exists under prohibition?

[2] Rich Mole, Whisky Wars of the Canadian West: Fifty Years of Battles Against the Bottle, Heritage House, 2012, p. 78.

Drug seizures in Nanaimo fail to stop trafficking

The recent seizure of drugs and weapons by Nanaimo RCMP does nothing to “disrupt supply” and won’t prevent more illicit drugs from entering the city.

girls smoking cannabis

The largest drug seizure in Canadian history took place in the year 2000 when 100 kilos of heroin were confiscated in Vancouver’s port.

Subsequent research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2003 showed that, contrary to law-enforcement predictions, the price of heroin actually dropped in Vancouver.  A seizure of this magnitude had no impact on supply. Furthermore, the BC Coroner reported that the number of deaths attributable to heroin overdoses increased three months after the bust.

As a former correctional officer in a maximum-security prison, I witnessed drug use and near-fatal drug overdoses in the most restrictive environment which the law allowed. It’s hardly surprising that drug trafficking flourishes in open society where misguided laws created and now sustain a black market.

The utter failure of Canada’s drug prohibitionist polices to support health and safety is painfully repeated by the federal government’s willful blindness to decades of impartial research.  It is prohibition and not the drugs themselves which place the police and public at risk.

If we want to stop people from using deadly drugs, we should heed the successful regulatory and educational efforts by Health Canada to convince young people not to smoke tobacco.

A much smaller proportion of youth are smoking today than 30 years ago – all without putting a single person in jail.

RCMP: Difficult Entry, Difficult Exits

I’ve been educating students, many of whom aspire to join the RCMP, for the past 23 years. I’m often updated by former students about their rigorous application procedure, and why young women and men have been denied entry into the Mounties.

It turns out that if your spouse has been convicted of a summary conviction offence which did not involve moral turpitude, or if you smoked cannabis at a party when you were 15, or shoplifted a sweater at 16, or have had 6 penalty points on your driver’s license, then you’re not of the moral calibre expected of our national police force which, as journalist Alan Fotheringham pointed has out, is neither Royal nor Mounted.

In speaking to our criminology students, police representatives have boasted that of every 100 applicants, only three are chosen to begin the recruitment cycle of interviewing, background checks, physical fitness assessments, and a polygraph. Regrettably, that screening process does not filter out people like Staff Sergeant Don Ray who violated the RCMP oath at least seven times while he was responsible for the polygraph unit at Edmonton Divisional Headquarters.

Ray is not the most egregious case in recent years. The blue ribbon for police misconduct is claimed by Constable Benjamin “Monty” Robinson, the misfit-in-a-uniform who lead the fatal clusterfuck against an unarmed Polish immigrant who was causing a harmless commotion at the Vancouver Airport  in October, 2007.

The continuing sad story is that Robinson subsequently killed a motorcyclist while off duty in 2008, bolted from the scene of the crash (but left his driver’s license to avoid a conviction for “fleeing the scene of an accident”) and went home to drink enough vodka to “explain” his high blood alcohol content to investigators.

After three years of proceedings while Robinson was off-duty and collected full pay, he was convicted of obstruction of justice. This criminal record now leaves Robinson eligible to be fired from the RCMP.

Not only has the reputation of the RCMP been sullied by obviously poor recruitment methods, but they have little ability to get rid of men who have no qualms about using their peace officer status for selfish, immoral or illegal ends. The public is fed up, and recent opinion polls show it. Further yet, we now see websites like RCMP Watch: Who is Keeping Them Accountable? Good question.

When I started this job, young men (and occasionally women) came to me and said things like, “I’m thinking of applying to the RCMP… what do you think?”

My reply to them covered yes it’s a noble profession, there’s varied and interesting work in policing, make sure you complete your baccalaureate otherwise you’ll be writing speeding tickets for the rest of your life in Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan; don’t forget it’s a paramilitary organization and are you cut out for that?

Today I have reservations about recommending the RCMP as a career destination for young people, at least until the force purges its misogynistic culture, focuses their training on service delivery and not so much on “hard policing” (because the former is that’s what their job mostly entails), and rewards occupational behaviour which supports “healthy communities”, rather than its romanticized negative, “crime prevention through enforcement”.