Pubdate: Sat, 04 May 2013
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Copyright: 2013 The Vancouver Sun
Author: Peter McKnight


When it comes to reforming laws governing marijuana, politicians send 
message that they just don't want to know

In these days of high anxiety, there's a phobia for just about 
everything. Consider, for example, "epistemophobia," the fear of knowledge.

Now you might be wondering about who could possibly fear knowledge, 
given that a lack of knowledge is invariably fatal. So I'll tell you 
who's afraid of knowledge: Your elected representatives, that's who. 
We have seen successive governments shy away, not merely from 
repealing damaging laws that criminalize possession of and trade in 
marijuana, but from learning anything about the effect of such drugs 
or such laws.

Indeed, when cannabis possession was first criminalized in Canada in 
1923, few if any parliamentarians had ever heard of the drug, let 
alone knew anything about it. That didn't stop them from 
criminalizing it, though, thereby starting us on a 90-year odyssey of 
ignorance, and one that has been anything but blissful.

The first few decades of the odyssey were relatively uneventful, 
given that marijuana was uncommon and virtually unknown in North 
America. But things changed in 1971 when, in an effort to distract 
Americans from the debacle of Vietnam, former U.S. president Richard 
Nixon declared war on drugs.

Cannabis was therefore placed squarely in the sights of law 
enforcement, despite there being little evidence of its effects or of 
the effect of laws prohibiting possession of such substances.

The Canadian government soon followed suit, again with little 
evidence in support of its policy. And with each successive decade, 
politicians in both Canada and the U.S. enacted ever harsher drug 
laws, while somehow remaining ignorant of the steady flow of 
information about the harms such laws occasion.

Indeed, shortly after war was declared, the Commission of Inquiry 
into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, chaired by future Supreme Court of 
Canada justice Gerald Le Dain, released a report calling for the 
repeal of laws criminalizing cannabis possession. And a minority 
report of the commission recommended legal trade in marijuana.

Hearings by the Le Dain Commission began in 1969, even before war was 
declared. And the commission released its report - one of the most 
comprehensive and well-respected reports on illicit drugs ever 
produced - in 1972, yet politicians apparently didn't see or hear a 
thing about it.

Thirty years later, the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs 
followed up with another comprehensive report, a 600-plus page 
broadside against prohibition. The report, two-years in the making, 
recommended not just decriminalization, but legalization of cannabis 
possession. Yet it, too, fell on deaf ears, as few politicians 
apparently even bothered to read it, while fewer still heeded its 

And so we come to the present day and our present location. In an 
effort to determine the effects - both positive and negative - of 
legal trade in marijuana, Stop the Violence BC, a group of law 
enforcement officials, legal experts, public health officials and 
academic experts, has proposed the development of a research trial to 
evaluate the impact of cannabis regulation.

The study would involve one pilot site where marijuana is sold 
legally. Although the trial has not yet been designed, Stop the 
Violence BC co-founder and University of British Columbia medical 
professor Evan Wood notes that it could take a form similar to some 
of the studies of clients of Insite, Vancouver's supervised injection site.

For example, customers of the legal marijuana site could be surveyed 
to determine if using the site has resulted in their no longer 
relying on organized crime for their marijuana. This could benefit 
the community in two ways - by adversely affecting organized crime's 
bottom line, and by reducing or eliminating the proliferation of 
dangerous grow ops.

Profits from the site could help determine what kind of revenue legal 
trade in marijuana could provide, and researchers could assess 
whether the site has affected the ease with which children can access 
marijuana. Finally, the trial would be subject to ethical approval 
and could be shut down if it results in any unanticipated harms.

Researchers would also need to receive from the federal minister of 
health an exemption under s. 56 the Controlled Drugs and Substances 
Act since the trial would involve distribution of otherwise illegal 
substances. And while the federal government hasn't been entirely 
supportive of innovative drug programs, it has provided s. 56 
exemptions for trials involving prescribing heroin to treat opioid 
addiction and MDMA (ecstasy) to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. 
Supporting such a trial seems a no-brainer, since we don't know 
exactly what legalization would bring.

As a result, proponents and opponents of regulation have been arguing 
in an empirical vacuum, with proponents claiming it will eliminate a 
major source of revenue for organized crime while adding a major 
source of revenue for government, and opponents claiming it will lead 
to higher usage rates, including among children.

The only way to determine which, if either, of these scenarios is 
likely to come true is to conduct research like the proposed trial. 
Perhaps that's why British Columbians are so strongly in favour of 
the proposal.

According to an Angus Reid Public Opinion survey, 73 per cent of 
respondents said they supported the trial while only 18 per cent 
opposed it. Furthermore, 44 per cent of respondents said their 
opinion of a political party would improve if the party supported the 
trial while only 12 per cent said their view of the party would worsen.

Ah, but there's those see-no-evil-(or-good), hear-no-evil-(or-good) 
politicians again. To canvass political support for the trial, Stop 
the Violence BC sent the following question to the provincial 
Liberals, NDP, Conservatives and the Greens:

"If your party forms government, would you prevent a small-scale 
research trial involving an s. 56 exemption and examining if a 
strictly regulated (i.e. legal) system for adult marijuana purchases 
could cut profits to organized crime, raise tax revenue and better 
protect young people from the free availability of marijuana that 
exists under prohibition?"

The Green Party of B.C. was the only party to express unequivocal 
support for the trial, though the NDP did say that it would not 
prevent the trial. The Conservatives, on the other hand, offer no 
answer at all.

And then there are the Liberals, who offered this gem of skulduggery: 
"(T)he federal government is responsible for regulating marijuana and 
any changes to the current structure, including research trials, 
would have to be initiated by them." Now this is patently false. The 
federal government is responsible for granting the s. 56 exemption, 
but nothing more, as the trial could be and would be (under this 
proposal) initiated provincially.

As if that weren't enough, the Libs continued by saying that if the 
feds granted the exemption: "our government would certainly give 
serious consideration to any provincial approvals that would then be 
required." So even if the feds are on board, the Liberals would still 
equivocate in their support. On the bright side, two of four 
provincial parties canvassed support expanding our knowledge of the 
effects of drug prohibition. But equally, two of four surveyed 
provincial parties seem less than supportive of an effort to increase 
our knowledge of one of the most important social issues of our time, 
an issue that has cost the world trillions of dollars and hundreds of 
thousands of lives.

Maintaining a posture designed to avoid seeing and hearing evil is 
one thing. But when it comes to drug prohibition, the provincial 
Liberals and Conservatives have apparently decided to adopt a posture 
facing backwards, so they can't see or hear anything.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom