The demon bootlegger?

“A law that will make everyone feel good and accomplish nothing”


At around 6. a.m. on a Saturday morning she wakes up, head throbbing, hands trembling.

On the floor she sees a 40-ounce bottle of Smirnoff vodka. It’s empty. So she calls a cab.

She tells the driver to take her to a bank machine, where she asks him to wait. She returns with $300 or $400 and gives the driver another house number.

There, she once again makes the driver wait. When she climbs back in, she’s clutching a plastic 60-ouncer.

By 7 a.m. she’s home with her partner, drinking straight vodka for breakfast. Like many in Nunavut, they drink it by the “cup.” Based on the size of the average coffee cup, that means each serving holds six to eight ounces or more of 80-proof hard liquor.

As the day wears on, they might smoke a few joints or they might take their bottle to share with friends. If they get hungry they might order from the Snack or grab junk food from the Quickstop.

But this is certain: they’ll drink that bottle dry. They’ll pass out, wake up the next morning and repeat the pattern until they run out of money.

There are variations between communities, but that’s how binge drinking works in Nunavut. You drink until you drink that bottle dry. If the ensuing loss of inhibition leads to rapes, beatings, stabbings or child molestation, well, that’s always somebody else’s fault.

So who’s the culprit?

Many Nunavut residents pin the blame on everyone’s favourite scapegoat: the much-vilified “bootlegger.” Together with drug dealers, bootleggers are the purported root of all evil.

For numerous Nunavut residents, including most public office holders, this is conventional wisdom. Get rid of the demon bootlegger and his demon cousin, the dope dealer, and Nunavut’s social ills will disappear.

But does this conform to reality? After all, it takes two parties to complete a transaction: a seller and a buyer. If the buyer did not exist, neither would the seller.

The sellers of drugs and unlicenced liquor thrive in Nunavut because large numbers of buyers are willing to buy their goods. Even in communities where cheaper legal alternatives are available, such as ordering from outside with a permit or simply going to a bar, people are willing to pay staggering prices for illegal booze.

Whether the trade is legal or underground, you cannot suppress commerce, especially when powerful needs overwhelm rational thinking.

And who are these bootleggers and drug dealers? Many in Nunavut would have you believe they’re fanged monsters whose bulging eyes glow in dark while they’re counting their money with blood-stained fingers.

In reality, these “bootleggers” and “drug dealers” are mostly ordinary people, just like you, except they’re probably a little more enterprising and creative than the norm.

The local bootlegger is likely your friend and neighbor. He or she might even be a mayor or a hamlet councillor. Your local drug dealer might be a respected small business person or government worker.

They’re not agents of the devil. They’re informal entrepreneurs who engage in a type of black market commerce that’s aimed at meeting a powerful pre-existing need. Many are working people attempting to supplement their incomes to cope with the high cost of living. This underground activity is neither moral nor immoral. It just is.

This hasn’t stopped the Government of Nunavut from engaging in a great moral crusade, in the form of Bill 19, which contains a new law called the Unlawful Property Forfeiture Act.

The law would authorize the use of a civil procedure under which the GN would seize property that has been obtained through the profits of “unlawful activity” or has been used to engage in such activity.

The GN, through a new officer called the Director of Forfeiture, would not have to prove that a property owner has committed a crime. The law is directed at property, not persons. But it nevertheless creates a powerful tool for violating civil liberties and property rights that have heretofore been protected.

Bill 19 received second reading in the Nunavut legislature June 8. Before it gets third reading, it will move to a legislative committee.

It’s virtually certain that MLAs will pass Bill 19. It’s politically popular and, even better, it doesn’t require them to do any actual thinking about the social and public health issues that produce addictions. Best of all, it will allow MLAs to wallow afterward in their own self-righteousness, spouting the usual hogwash about “societal values.”

It’s still a bad law. It will not deter the illegal sale of alcohol or non-prescription black market drugs, though it may drive the trade more deeply underground and cause the price of such goods to rise even higher.

And with Parliament expected to legalize cannabis next year, the new law might potentially enable the seizure of property from people who sell a legal substance. If the brainiacs at the Department of Justice want to make themselves useful, they might be better off turning their minds to the question of how legal cannabis can be bought and sold in Nunavut after 2017.

Addiction is a complex social and public health issue that requires broad action by public health officials and others.

But instead of encouraging such action, the prune-faced moralizers at the GN are about to impose an unnecessary law that will make everyone feel good and accomplish nothing. JB

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