Pubdate: Tue, 02 Dec 2003
Source: Washington Times (DC)
Copyright: 2003 News World Communications, Inc.
Author: Paul Armentano


WASHINGTON, Dec. 2 (UPI) -- Canadian Justice Minister Martin Cauchon's
decision earlier this month to "fast-track" legislation eliminating criminal
penalties for adults caught possessing small quantities of marijuana has,
not surprisingly, provoked a bureaucratic outcry in the United States. "The
problem is the political leadership in Canada has been utterly unable to
come to grips with this," U.S. Drug Czar John Walters recently lamented in
an interview. "They're talking about legalization while Rome burns."

Cut the hyperbole. First, the Canadian government is not contemplating
legalizing marijuana. Rather, Canada's pending law would institute civil
fines instead of criminal penalties for adults who possess less than 1/2
ounce of pot.

To put this policy in its proper perspective, 12 states -- Alaska,
California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New
York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon -- have adopted similar
decriminalization laws. In these states adults may possess up to an ounce or
more of pot (28.5 grams) without criminal penalty, and in one state -- Ohio
- -- adults are allowed to possess as much as 3 ounces of marijuana for their
own personal use.

Currently more than 30 percent of the U.S. population lives in a place where
some type of marijuana decriminalization is the law. According to the
federal government, this policy "has had virtually no effect on either the
marijuana use or on the related attitudes and beliefs about marijuana use
among young people."

Since the 1970s, more than a dozen government-appointed committees -- in the
United States, Britain, Canada and Australia as well as in other countries
- -- have issued recommendations regarding marijuana policy. These include the
Shafer Commission, appointed by former President Richard Nixon, Canada's Le
Dain Commission, and Britain's Wooten Report, all of which concluded that
marijuana prohibition causes far more social damage than marijuana use, and
the possession of marijuana for personal use should no longer be a criminal

The passage of time has done little to sway the minds of these nonpartisan

Consider the conclusions of the Wooten Report, originally issued in 1968:
"In considering the scale of penalties, our main aim, having regard to our
view of the known effects of cannabis, is to remove for practical purposes,
the prospect of imprisonment for possession of a small amount and to
demonstrate that taking the drug in moderation is a relatively minor

Parallel those findings with the recent recommendations of the conservative
British Police Foundation, which in a 2001 report concluded: "The law's
implementation damages individuals in terms of criminal records and risks to
jobs and relationships to a degree that far outweighs any harm that cannabis
may be doing to a society. Prison should no longer be a penalty for
possession." The millennium may be different, but their analysis remains the

Scientific inquiries on this side of the Atlantic have yielded equally
consistent results.

In 1972, Nixon's handpicked Shafer Commission recommended Congress remove
criminal penalties for the possession of marijuana for personal use as well
as on the "casual distribution of small amounts of marijuana."

Ten years later, researchers at the U.S. National Research Council, a
division of the National Academy of Sciences, reaffirmed that prohibition
was ineffective and should be "seriously reconsidered."

Most recently, a special Canadian House of Lords committee concluded, "The
consequences of conviction for possession of a small amount of cannabis for
personal use are disproportionate to the potential harm associated with that

The committee's findings inspired Canada's current decriminalization push,
while at the same time evoking the sort of "sky-is-falling" rhetoric
characterized by the U.S. drug czar's comments in the aforementioned

Of course, this is just the sort of divergent reaction one has come to
expect between Canada and the United States as it pertains to marijuana
policy. While the Canadian Parliament explores ways to institute a more
health- and science-based approach to its drug policies -- as exemplified by
its recent decisions to legalize the use of medicinal marijuana and debate
the merits of decriminalization -- U.S. bureaucrats continue to perpetuate
failed policies based primarily upon myths, lies and rhetoric. Debates
regarding marijuana policy should not be dictated by hyperbole; especially
when as in this case, the facts speak for themselves.

- -- Paul Armentano is the senior policy analyst for The NORML Foundation, a
legal, educational and research organization based in Washington that seeks
to decriminalize marijuana use in the United States.
- ---
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