Pubdate: Thu, 21 Nov 2002
Source: Whitehorse Star (CN YK)
Copyright: 2002 Whitehorse Star
Author:  Sarah Elizabeth Brown


"Hi. My Name Is Dennis And I Smoke Marijuana."

The admissions were as thick as the pot smoke in a Cheech and Chong flick 
at last night's debate on the decriminalization of marijuana, though the 
agreement on what should happen with the plant's legal status wasn't as strong.

Some disagreed about whether marijuana is even a drug as a couple argued 
it's simply an herb. Others disagreed about it being labelled a "gateway 
drug" while others said they thought it leads to harder drug use.

Several people on the panel and in the audience admitted to doing more than 
just inhaling -- everything from growing marijuana, to selling it and other 
drugs to crimes committed in search of drugs -- regardless of one of 
Whitehorse's most recognizable, though out-of-uniform, Mounties lounging on 
a table in the back of the room.

The public debate, attended by about 30 people, was held as part of 
National Addictions Awareness Week.

Dennis, a 42-year-old who said he's been smoking weed for 26 years, argued 
it's no longer acceptable for pot smokers to run the risk every day of 
having their lives interrupted by Draconian laws put in place in the early 
20th century -- laws that simply don't reflect life today, he said.

In early September, a Canadian Senate report argued for legalizing 
marijuana use for people over the age of 16, arguing that marijuana was not 
a so-called gateway drug - one that leads to the use of stronger narcotics 
- -- and is less dangerous than alcohol. More than 20,000 people a year are 
arrested for using marijuana in Canada, but the committee said the 
continued illegality of the drug was having no effect at all.

Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said last July he was considering whether 
to decriminalize marijuana, but the Senate's special committee on illegal 
drugs urged him to go much further.

Decriminalization for possession of marijuana would mean anyone caught with 
it would receive a fine much like a traffic ticket, and wouldn't get a 
criminal record. Instead, the Senate panel suggested Parliament legalize 
marijuana and regulate and sell it much like alcohol.

Debate panel member Mike Cozens, a local defence lawyer about to switch to 
the Crown prosecution side in the New Year, said he agreed with the Senate 
report that merely decriminalizing marijuana deprives the government of the 
ability to regulate and tax it. By decriminalizing but keeping it illegal, 
we're telling kids pot's not that bad, but they're dealing with the same 
criminal element to buy, Cozens argued.

He said by legalizing marijuana, it could be regulated and taxed, and that 
money could be used to go after those selling hard drugs. Many in the 
audience argued marijuana isn't addictive like alcohol and cigarettes.

Cozens argued the "gateway drug" idea is outdated, and that it hasn't been 
addressed by strong scientific research.

He and others noted, however, that what pot does is pull people wanting to 
buy it into an illegal subculture.

While he said he could see arguments for both sides, the lawyer said Canada 
needs to come up with a consistent philosophy based on sound research -- 
and stick to it.

"I've never had to defend clients who've beaten the crap out of someone 
because they were stoned," said Cozens, noting he's defended people who've 
done just that when they'd been drinking booze.

Several people in the audience questioned why marijuana, which tends to 
make people mellow and relaxed, was made illegal over alcohol, which is one 
root of most of the Yukon's crime.

General practitioner Dr. Graham Henderson, who recently finished a six-year 
stint working at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, said marijuana is on 
the low end of the scale of legal and illegal drugs in terms of physical harm.

"In a nutshell, I don't think it's all that harmful," he said. However, he 
listed some of the effects of marijuana, which include short-term memory 
loss -- affecting learning -- and damage to neuro transmitters in the brain.

THC, the active agent in marijuana, attaches itself to fatty tissues in the 
body, he said, noting it can stay in the brain's fatty tissues for up to 40 

The physical fact of smoking pot is quite dangerous though, he said, noting 
the risk of lung cancer rises for smokers. From what he's learned, 
marijuana hasn't been proved to be addictive, but it's more likely that 
some people are just more susceptible.

"Addicts are probably born, not made," he said. "I don't consider it very 
high up in the causing-damage department."

He said while he doesn't believe smoking marijuana is worth a criminal 
record, leaving it in the decriminalization realm leaves the pushers and 
violent subculture where it is.

Billy Bromell, a panel member and a Yukon College student who argued for 
making marijuana legal, noted that every society has had drug use and that 
the 1920s-decision to make it illegal was simply a political one made by 
the moral majority.

"Nobody has the right to tell me what I can and cannot put in my body," 
Bromell said.

"People do things to other people's bodies when they're on crack cocaine," 
replied Cozens. "We don't want a society where kids think crack cocaine is 
fine, where kids think smoking marijuana while they're at school is fine."

Laws are made to define the sort of society we want to create, he said.

One woman who said she's a counsellor with youth vehemently opposed 
decriminalization or legalization of marijuana after the years of trouble 
she's seen her charges get into with the drug. They don't do as well in 
school and it affects their relationships with peers, she said.

Their still-growing bodies are affected as well, the woman said.

The people into legalizing marijuana are doing it for their own 
self-interest, she said.

"It's for their own personal enjoyment and so they won't get busted," she 
said. "They're not looking at the greater good."

Even those in the audience who argued for legalizing all drugs, legalizing 
only marijuana or decriminalizing the drug all agreed it's not something 
kids should be using.

"It's a social problem, not a legal problem," said one young man. "You 
don't put people in jail; you educate them. I don't think, though, you 
should be smoking pot when you're 14. You should be out doing stuff, 
playing sports, learning things."

Matthew Cardinal, a student and recovering cocaine addict who's used and 
sold numerous kinds of drugs, said illegal drug traffickers don't care 
about drug users' safety. They're not prescribing appropriate daily doses 
- -- all they care about is money, he said.

For sellers, it's not a movement to smoke pot legally, it's a movement to 
make money he said.

"There are no rules that actually exist in that subculture."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom