Pubdate: Sat, 07 Sep 2002
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2002, The Globe and Mail Company
Bookmarks: (Cannabis - Canada) (Opinions)


The best argument in support of legalizing cannabis can be found at a
high school near you. Canada is awash in high-strength, homegrown
marijuana. In urging that the drug be made available to anybody 16 or
older, the special Senate committee whose recommendations were
released this week has underscored a reality long familiar to
teachers, police and substance-abuse experts: The punitive laws now in
place do not work and will not.

In the 12-to-17 age group alone, by the committee's reckoning, roughly
one million Canadians have smoked pot in the past year, and as many as
a quarter of that number do so daily.

Yet in advocating a radical course that would make this country's
cannabis laws the most liberal in the Western world, and open up a
bitter divide among Canadians, the committee has gone too far. The
status quo is not an option, but there is a less radical choice -- far
from a perfect one, but the best of a bad lot and one whose
implementation is long overdue. In line with numerous European
countries, Canada needs to downgrade the seriousness of simple
marijuana possession by decriminalizing it.

This compromise solution is also familiar. More than 30 years have
passed since Canada's Le Dain commission urged that cannabis be
decriminalized; in the interim, the only thing that's really changed
is the source and potency of the product. These days, countless
thousands of illicit hydroponic "grow-ops" in Canada are churning out
marijuana, much of it destined for the U.S. market and all of it
boasting a THC content (the ingredient that gets you high) that dwarfs
what used to be the norm.

What has not changed is the core Le Dain premise that attaching
criminal penalties to marijuana use does far more harm than good. The
present law is widely and contemptuously ignored. Not only does it
still gobble up large amounts of badly needed police and court
resources, but also, and worst of all, thousands of pot smokers are
saddled each year with a criminal record substantially more injurious
to their future than the haze of a head full of marijuana smoke,
particularly if they want to enter the United States.

For that reason, the Senate committee's recommendation that an amnesty
wipe clean the slate for the roughly half-million Canadians convicted
of cannabis possession is welcome and should be acted upon. Equally
laudable is its call for better access to medically prescribed
marijuana for people undergoing cancer chemotherapy or suffering
chronic pain.

But as was realized long ago in the Netherlands, where the famous
coffee shops belie the fact that cannabis technically remains banned,
taking the leap to outright legalization would pose enormous

Fierce opposition from fellow members of the European Union has been
the chief reason for the 26-year Dutch strategy of disregarding its
cannabis laws rather than scrapping them. That hostility would pale
compared to the howl of rage from south of the border were Canada to
sanction and license a marijuana distribution system, as the Senate
report recommends. Agreed, this country's drug policies should not be
dictated by the United States. But neither should anyone underestimate
the lasting cross-border complications that would instantly ensue.

State control of the marijuana trade would crimp criminals' profits,
the Senate committee says. In other countries that argument might hold
water. But Draconian U.S. laws about drug cultivation have built
Canada's marijuana-export business into a behemoth. Police and others
gauge that hundreds of tonnes of expensive pot are grown and smuggled
south, notably from British Columbia and largely by the Hells Angels
and other organized-crime groups.

If marijuana use were regulated in Canada tomorrow, that trade would
continue unabated. And given that the Senate report calls for a
tetrahydrocannabinol ceiling of 13 per cent, and that plenty of
marijuana aficionados prefer something stronger, it would be
remarkable if some of that marijuana did not remain at home to compete
with the officially sanctioned product.

The health factor, too, seems to have received short shrift in this
report. The harm caused by marijuana has long been in dispute;
committee chairman and Tory Senator Pierre Claude Nolin may be correct
in asserting that alcohol and tobacco pose greater risks. But
expanding the list of state-approved vices to include cannabis would
dispatch the unmistakable message that its hazards are minimal.

And they are not. It is one thing to argue that drug abuse should
primarily be dealt with as a medical and social issue. But it's quite
another to suggest, even implicitly, that drug-taking doesn't matter,
least of all among teenagers as young as 16. No, smoking marijuana
will probably not turn you into a drug addict. But yes, it can make
you seriously (if temporarily) stupid, and commonly results in slowed
reaction and a short-term memory loss that is, to say the least, at
odds with scholastic achievement. Nor can the dangers to the smoker's
lungs and (in the case of young people) hormonal development be dismissed.

Federal Justice Minister Martin Cauchon knows all this, which is why
he favours decriminalizing simple marijuana use, which would reduce an
offence to roughly the same level as a traffic ticket. A House of
Commons committee report later this year is expected to call for the
same. Decriminalizing pot would still leave the issue in a grey legal
area. But for now, it's the right way to go. 
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