Pubdate: Wed, 02 Aug 2000
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2000, The Globe and Mail Company


Parliament Should Make A Useful Drug Available -- And Go A Step Further

The Ontario Court of Appeal has decided that Terrance Parker can be both a 
legal pot grower and a legal pot user -- he, and everyone like him who 
requires the drug for medical purposes.

The court reasoned on Monday that, since the federal law on marijuana 
possession and cultivation doesn't recognize the paramount nature of Mr. 
Parker's need to use the drug to control the epileptic seizures that have 
afflicted him for almost 40 years, it is "forcing Parker to choose between 
his health and imprisonment." This does not accord with "principles of 
fundamental justice," and therefore the law should be struck down. The 
effect of the judgment on everyone but Mr. Parker is stayed for a year to 
give Ottawa an opportunity to redraft the law to include a medical 
marijuana exemption.

While the government has recently started to grant selected people the 
right to obtain marijuana to ease symptoms associated with various medical 
conditions, the court pointed out that there is no clear rationale for what 
and who qualifies.

Being dependent on the "unfettered and unstructured discretion of the 
Minister of Health is not consistent with the principles of fundamental 
justice," it concluded. The judgment is right both in legal reasoning and 
in matters of the human spirit. It is madness for every sick person to have 
to appeal to the federal Health Minister to get his or her drug. (An 
estimated 150,000 people in Ontario alone might benefit from marijuana's 
ability to ease the effects of AIDS, glaucoma, cancer and epilepsy.) It is 
also madness that, once the exemption has been granted, there is no safe 
and legal supply of the drug for those entitled to have it.

The present ministerial exemption system seems designed not to speed 
delivery of medical marijuana to the sick people who would benefit from it, 
but to employ all the sticky slowness of a bureaucracy to limit medical 
marijuana's use.

More than Kafkaesque, this approach ignores obvious parallels in the rest 
of the medical system.

Other drugs, notably opiates, have two regimes applied to them. While their 
recreational use is illegal, their medical use isn't. The decision about 
when it is appropriate to prescribe them isn't a whim of bureaucracy; it is 
soberly arrived at by a doctor and patient. There is nothing about 
marijuana that says it should be treated any differently from other drugs, 
and a lot (its physical effects and addictive characteristics are 
relatively benign) to say it is ultimately safer than many other drugs.

In the interest of both the sick people of Canada and natural justice, the 
federal government should bow to the wisdom of the courts and get on with 
providing a cheap and easy way for sick people to get their medication. The 
clear reason this hasn't already happened is the oft-stated fear that the 
medical use of marijuana is simply a stalking horse for total legalization.

While nowhere in the Western world is smoking the drug entirely legal, 
there have been various efforts at what is sometimes termed 
decriminalization. In the Netherlands, licensed "coffee shops" selling the 
drug openly must adhere to strict rules, including not selling more than 30 
grams at a time and being responsible for public disturbances caused by 
high clients.

In those rare instances when people are charged with possession, the 
penalty is confiscation, not a jail term. The Swiss have recently proposed 
a similar law. In many other European countries -- and indeed in many 
jurisdictions in Canada -- possession of a small amount of marijuana is 
simply ignored by the police. So why not go all the way and make marijuana 

Some worry about the social side effects: the marijuana-high equivalent of 
drunk driving, or marijuana as a gateway to harder drugs.

The case for these concerns is not strong.

What studies there are suggest that while there may be some loss of 
control, marijuana users become more cautious drivers when they get high. 
The most likely outcome of marijuana smoking seems to be more marijuana 

What is clear is that outright legalization would cause serious trouble 
with the United States, where prohibiting the substance is part of a 
national drug war. Therefore, Canada should follow its historical nature 
and take a middle path first proposed in 1973 by the LeDain Commission of 
Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs. Decriminalize marijuana.

Make using it illegal in name but regulated and legal in practice.
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager