Pubdate: Fri, 06 Sep 2002
Source: Kitchener-Waterloo Record (CN ON)
Copyright: 2002 Kitchener-Waterloo Record
Related: What's Up In Canada, Eh? / by Matthew Elrod
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Canada)


The reputation of the Canadian Senate as a dusty repository of staid
if not stale minds has gone up in smoke -- we cannot tell what kind of
smoke -- with the stunning call from members of this august body to
legalize marijuana.

Though Canadians often wonder what senators do for their salaries, it
is clear that a special Senate committee has been hard at work
studying Canada's antiquated and harmful marijuana laws, checking the
medical and legal facts about the drug and producing a gutsy and
intelligent list of recommendations for change.

The senators deserve a sustained round of applause for their efforts,
even if Parliament should be in no hurry to legalize this drug. At the
very least, the senators have advanced the debate over Canada's drug
laws and helped establish common ground from which to proceed.

They agree with federal Justice Minister Martin Cauchon -- and we
think a substantial number of ordinary citizens -- that this country's
marijuana laws are out of date, out of touch, and enforced
inconsistently and, therefore, unfairly. For example, only five per
cent of people charged and convicted of possession of drugs for
personal use in Toronto received jail sentences while as many as 55
per cent of those convicted elsewhere in Ontario go to jail. Society's
attitudes to marijuana have changed but the law and how that law is
enforced ignore this.

An estimated 600,000 Canadians have criminal records for simple
possession of pot. But we have yet to see a convincing argument that
the evils of this substance in any way justify a law that creates so
many criminals out of otherwise law-abiding people.

The Senate committee findings also concur with an article in the
Canadian Medical Association Journal in May 2001 which called
marijuana an "innocuous drug." Indeed, by any objective standard,
tobacco and alcohol are far more pernicious substances and cause
inestimably more pain, grief and, yes, death than pot.Yet they remain
legal, if highly controlled and taxed substances.

Having said this, we would not go so far as the senate would lead us.
We, like many others in Canada including the Canadian Association of
Police Chiefs, the Canadian Medical Association Journal and a broad
spectrum of federal politicians in every party, favour
decriminalization. And there is a big difference.

What the senate advocates is making pot smoking legal for anyone over
16 and a regulated system for producing and selling marijuana. In
sharp contrast, decriminalization would mean that simple possession of
small amounts of this substance for personal use would no longer
constitute a criminal offence punishable by jail but would be
downgraded to a civil misdemeanour that merited a fine. Britain
recently adopted a similar approach.

The senators rightly point out that one weakness of decriminalization
is that it would leave in the hands of criminals the responsibility
for growing and distributing marijuana.

But legalization -- which would give Canada the world's most liberal
marijuana laws -- also has problems. It is almost certain that
legalization would result in a huge, criminal network that smuggles
marijuana into the United States. The American government would take a
dim view of this, to say the least. And while Canada should never be
afraid of asserting its sovereignty, it is at least worth asking
whether we want to risk a major rift with our biggest trading partner
and closest neighbour over marijuana.

Whatever its shortcomings, the Senate committee report should provide
a burr in the side of the federal government, one that encourages the
overdue revision of our drug laws. A full 30 years have passed since
the highly respected Le Dain Commission advocated decriminalization in
Canada. The time has come to do something. A House of Commons
committee is expected to release a report on illicit drugs in
November. Let a new debate begin then, followed by real action and
reform. Let's take this one step at a time, and the first step is the
decriminalization of marijuana. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake