Pubdate: Fri, 19 Aug 2011
Source: Leduc Representative (CN AB)
Copyright: 2011 Osprey Media
Author: Simon Yackulic


LEDUC - The tie Leduc addiction counsellor Gene LeBlanc makes between
the consequences of legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco, when
compared to the illegal drug marijuana, has been a contentious issue
lately for scientists and lawmakers.

According to the article 'Development of a rational scale to assess
the harm of drugs of potential misuse', published in 2007 by the
respected British medical journal The Lancet, marijuana was ranked as
causing less harm and being less addictive then both tobacco and
alcohol. As in Canada, marijuana use in Britain is illegal, while
tobacco and alcohol use is legal. The report noted the contradiction
of having the more harmful substances tobacco and alcohol legal while
less harmful substances are illegal, with laws seemingly based only on
which substances are more widely socially accepted.

"The exclusion of alcohol and tobacco from the (British) Misuse of
Drugs Act is, from a scientific perspective, arbitrary. We saw no
clear distinction between socially acceptable and illicit substances,"
the report examined. "Discussions based on a formal assessment of harm
rather than on prejudice and assumptions might help society to engage
in a more rational debate about the relative risks and harms of

Canada's Parliament has looked into marijuana prohibition and a Senate
committee came to similar conclusions in 2002. The Special Committee
on Illegal Drugs issued a report recommending marijuana be legalized
and regulated in a similar manner to alcohol and tobacco.

The Committee found marijuana was added to the drug control act in
1923, before which the drug was "virtually unknown in Canada and its
use was not a problem." A moral panic in the U.S., tied to marijuana's
use by Mexican laborers, might have encouraged Canada to ban the drug.
In Canada, Emily Murphy contributed to the panic with her book The
Black Candle where she claimed that after smoking marijuana people
"become raving maniacs and are liable to kill or indulge in any form
of violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty
without, as said before, any sense of moral responsibility."

Drug control in Canada began only slightly earlier in the century with
the Opium Act of 1908. The Act was targeted towards the largely
Chinese-Canadian opium dealers in British Columbia, and came on the
heals of an anti-Chinese riot in Vancouver by the Asiatic Exclusion
League in 1907. The Canadian government raised the head tax on Asian
immigration to $500 in 1904, and the Canadian and American temperance
movement ? which aimed to ban alcohol and other vices ? quickly moved
against Asian drugs as well in an attempt to capture popular

"Whites who frequented Chinese opium dens were often seen as
suspicious or dangerous," the committee noted in its report. "The
temperance movement did not hesitate to adopt the racist feeling
driving certain segments of American society in order to denounce the
use of opium, seen as a scourge that promoted immorality, crime and
the decline of the white Anglo-Saxon race."

The Committee found the continued prohibition of marijuana and not
alcohol or tobacco in the present day was less due to science then
global political orientation.

"The international drug control conventions are, at least with respect
to cannabis, an utterly irrational restraint that has nothing to do
with scientific or public health considerations," the committee

"The international regime for the control of psychoactive substances,
beyond any moral or even racist roots it may initially have had, is
first and foremost a system that reflects the geopolitics of North-
South relations in the 20th century. Indeed, the strictest controls
were placed on organic substances ? the coca bush, the poppy, and the
cannabis plant ? which are often part of the ancestral traditions of
the countries where these plants originate, whereas the North's
cultural products, tobacco and alcohol, were ignored and the synthetic
substances produced by the North's pharmaceutical industry were
subject to regulation rather than prohibition."

Besides estimating that enforcing marijuana prohibition costs Canada
around $300 million annually and ties up 30 per cent of the activity
of the justice system, the committee claimed the social costs of
marijuana use are primarily due to its criminalization, and not the
drug itself.

The committee's report recommended against decriminalization, which it
referred to as "the worst case scenario" as it would deprive the state
of the ability to control the drug and simultaneously deliver
"hypocritical messages." Instead the report recommends the "regulation
of the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis." A
regulatory system, the report explained, would be more effective at
targeting organized crime, be able to have real world prevention
programs, enhanced product monitoring, better education and "respect
for individual and collective freedoms, and legislation more in tune
with the behavior of Canadians."

United States drug policy official David Murray jumped into the fray
in 2003, explaining that the American government would "have to
respond. We would be forced to respond" if Canada moved towards
decriminalizing marijuana, echoing the committee's prediction
legalization or decriminalization could cause problems with the

Following the committee's report, in February 2004, the Canadian
government introduced a bill to decriminalize the possession of 15
grams or less of marijuana. The bill died when Parliament was
adjourned in May.

The current Canadian government has not made plans to decriminalize or
legalize marijuana, and has moved in the opposite direction. Prime
Minister Stephen Harper has included mandatory minimum sentences for
marijuana trafficking among his tough-on-crime bills, with the most
recent iteration dying when parliament was dissolved last March before
the federal election.
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