Pubdate: Sun, 17 Nov 2002
Source: St. Petersburg Times (FL)
Copyright: 2002 St. Petersburg Times
Author: Susan Taylor Martin


Depending on which side of the U.S.-Canadian border you're on, the winds of 
change are either blowing hard or barely at all when it comes to legalizing 

In Canada, a Senate committee stunned the country in September when it said 
anyone over 16 should be allowed to smoke marijuana. The recommendation was 
all the more startling because it came not from a group of 20-something 
potheads but lawmakers with an average age of 64.

But on Nov. 5, voters in Nevada overwhelmingly rejected a measure that 
would have made it the first state to legalize marijuana use. Also defeated 
were a decriminalization move in Arizona and a treatment-instead-of-jail 
proposal in Ohio.

The votes were a blow to well-financed efforts to bring America closer in 
line with other Western countries that treat marijuana use more as a public 
health issue than a criminal one. Backers of Nevada's Question 9 -- who 
included billionaire financier George Soros -- noted that 11-million 
Americans regularly smoke marijuana and argued that they should not be 
treated as criminals.

Given its image as a free-wheeling place where gambling and prostitution 
have long been allowed, Nevada seemed the logical starting point for a 
nationwide push to legalize marijuana. Had it been approved Nov. 5 and 
again in 2004, the measure would have let adults possess up to 3 ounces of 
marijuana, and required the Legislature to regulate it much like alcohol 
and tobacco.

But U.S. drug czar John Walters made two trips to Nevada, adding his voice 
to opponents who claimed legalization would encourage "drug tourism" and 
add to the already high number of traffic deaths caused by drivers 
purportedly stoned on marijuana. The defeat of Question 9 was also 
attributed in part to a larger-than-usual turnout by Republicans, who tend 
to be more conservative.

Some legalization foes saw the Nevada vote as a sign Americans have become 
more introspective since the Sept. 11 attacks and now realize that drugs, 
like terrorists, are destructive to their cherished way of life.

"Drugs destroy people, families, communities and can ultimately destroy 
nations," said Calvina Fay of the St. Petersburg-based Drug Free America 

But backers of Question 9 aren't giving up. While surprised by the margin 
of the Nevada defeat, they were cheered that voters in San Francisco 
overwhelmingly asked the city to explore providing marijuana to seriously 
ill patients. California and several other states already have medical 
marijuana laws, and efforts are under way to add New York, Vermont and 
Maryland to the list in the next few years.

"We've always spent most of our time on medical marijuana and a little bit 
of time on broader issues, and I think that's going to remain the same," 
says Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, the 
Washington, D.C., organization that sponsored Question 9.

Kampia says the project plans to "dump a couple hundred thousand dollars" 
onto another front: legalizing, or at least decriminalizing, marijuana use 
in Canada. Although that country has long been more tolerant of marijuana 
than the United States, no one expected the Senate committee to recommend 
changes that would make Canada's laws the most liberal in the world.

"In many ways prohibition is a cop-out," Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin said in 
releasing the panel's report, which found that the marijuana ban has fueled 
organized crime but done little to curb use. About 20,000 people are 
arrested in Canada each year on marijuana-related charges.

Although the verdict is still out on marijuana's health effects, scientific 
evidence indicates it is "substantially less harmful than alcohol and 
should be treated not as a criminal issue but a social and public health 
issue," Nolin said.

While stressing it did not condone drug use, the committee said smoking 
marijuana should be a personal choice and recommended it be available to 
anyone over 16 through a regulatory system like that for alcohol. The 
senators also urged amnesty for the 600,000 Canadians with 
marijuana-related convictions.

Although the report was hailed by many -- "I'm blown away," said Mark 
Emery, Canada's best-known pot activist -- it also drew sharp criticism. 
"It's a back-to-school gift for drug pushers," David Griffin of the 
Canadian Police Association told the Toronto Star.

In deciding whether to change the law, Canada's Parliament will also 
consider a soon-to-be-released report by a House of Commons committee. It 
is expected to recommend the less drastic step of decriminalizing marijuana 
use -- imposing fines but not jail time.

Any move to loosen Canadian drug laws will be opposed by the United States, 
which is already struggling to contain the huge flow of marijuana from 
British Columbia. But Kampia of the Marijuana Policy Project predicts 
Canada will resist U.S. pressure and decriminalize marijuana by summer. And 
that, he says, would boost efforts to do the same on this side of the border.

"Canadian culture is so similar to American that if Canadians can do it, 
why can't we? I think it will send a positive message to the American 
people that marijuana policy reform is not such a crazy idea."

- -- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at  ---
MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens