Pubdate: Mon, 17 Jun 2013
Source: Maclean's Magazine (Canada)
Copyright: 2013 Maclean Hunter Publishing Ltd.
Author: Ken MacQueen


After decades of wasted resources, clogged courtrooms and a shift in
public perception, let's end the war on weed

Sometime this year, if it hasn't happened already, the millionth
Canadian will be arrested for marijuana possession, Dana Larsen
estimates. The indefatigable B.C.-based activist for pot legalization
is thinking of marking the occasion with a special ceremony. True, it
will be impossible to know exactly who the millionth person is, but
with the Conservative government's amped-up war on drugs, it won't be
hard to find a nominee. As Larsen notes, the war on drugs in Canada is
mostly a war on marijuana, "and most of that is a war on marijuana

The numbers bear him out. Since the Tories came to power in 2006, and
slammed the door on the previous Liberal government's muddled plans to
reduce or decriminalize marijuana penalties, arrests for pot
possession have jumped 41 per cent. In those six years, police
reported more than 405,000 marijuana-related arrests, roughly
equivalent to the populations of Regina and Saskatoon combined.

In the statistic-driven world of policing, pot users are the
low-hanging fruit, says Larsen, director of Sensible BC, a non-profit
group organizing to put marijuana decriminalization on a provincial
referendum ballot in 2014. "We're seeing crime drop across Canada.
[Police] feel they've got nothing better to do. You can throw a rock
and find a marijuana user," he says over coffee in his Burnaby home.
"It's very easy to do."

But is it the right thing to do? Most certainly that's the view of the
federal government, which has been unshakable in its belief that pot
users are criminals, and that such criminals need arresting if Canada
is to be a safer place. The message hasn't changed though Canada's
crime rate has plummeted to its lowest level in 40 years. "It depends
on which type of crime you're talking about," Justice Minister Rob
Nicholson said in an interview with the Globe and Mail, a typical
defence of the Conservative's omnibus crime bill, which includes new
mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. "Among other things,
child sexual offences, those crimes are going up. Drug crimes are
going up, and so, again, much of what the Safe Streets and Communities
Act was focused on was child sexual offences and drug crimes."

The minister is correct if one takes a cursory look at the statistics.
Two of the largest one-year increases in police-reported crimes in
2011 were a 40 per cent jump in child pornography cases (3,100
incidents), and a seven per cent hike (to 61,406 arrests) for pot
possession. Taken together, all marijuana offences-possession, growing
and trafficking-accounted for a record 78,000 arrests in 2011, or 69
per cent of all drug offences. Simple pot possession represented 54
per cent of every drug crime that police managed to uncover. This is
more phony war than calamity, waged by a government determined to save
us from a cannabis crisis of its own making. To have the minister
imply a moral equivalency between child sexual abuse and carrying a
couple of joints in your jeans underscores the emotionalism clouding
the issue: reason enough to look at why marijuana is illegal in the
first place.

The Conservative hard line is increasingly out of step with its
citizenry, and with the shifting mood in the United States, where two
states-Colorado and Washington-have already legalized recreational
use, where others have reduced penalties to a misdemeanour ticket and
where many, like California, have such lax rules on medical marijuana
that one is reminded of the "medicinal alcohol" that drugstores
peddled with a wink during a previous failed experiment with

In late May, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition added its voice to the
debate with a sweeping report, "Getting to Tomorrow," calling for the
decriminalization of all currently illegal drugs, the regulation and
taxation of cannabis and the expansion of treatment and harm-reduction
programs. The coalition of drug policy experts, affiliated with the
Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction at Simon
Fraser University, calls the increasing emphasis on drug
criminalization under the Conservatives an "overwhelming failure." The
high marijuana use by Canadian minors is just one unintended
consequence of current drug laws, it concludes. "Prohibition abdicated
responsibility for regulating drug markets to organized crime and
abandons public health measures like age restrictions and dosing controls."

There's growing consensus, at least outside the Conservative cabinet
room, that it's time to take a hard look at tossing out a marijuana
prohibition that dates back to 1923-a Canadian law that has succeeded
in criminalizing successive generations, clogging the courts, wasting
taxpayer resources and enriching gangsters, while failing to dampen
demand for a plant that, by objective measures, is far more benign
than alcohol or tobacco.

Why is marijuana illegal?

Well, Maclean's must take a measure of responsibility. Back in the
1920s one of its high-profile correspondents was Emily Murphy, the
Alberta magistrate, suffragette and virulent anti-drug crusader, who
frequently wrote under the pen name Janey Canuck. She wrote a lurid
series of articles for the magazine that were later compiled and
expanded in her 1922 book, The Black Candle - you'll find an excerpt
from this book at the end of this piece. She raged against "Negro"
drug dealers and Chinese opium peddlers "of fishy blood" out to
control and debase the white race.

Much of her wrath was directed at narcotics and the plight of the
addict, but she also waged a hyperbolic attack against the evils of
smoking marijuana-then little-known and little-used recreationally,
although the hemp plant had been a medicinal staple in teas and
tinctures. Quoting uncritically the view of the Los Angeles police
chief of the day, she reported: "Persons using this narcotic smoke the
dried leaves of the plant, which has the effect of driving them
completely insane. The addict loses all sense of moral responsibility.
Addicts to this drug, while under its influence, are immune to pain,
and could be severely injured without having any realization of their
condition. While in this condition they 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."

In 1923, a year after The Black Candle's release, Canada became one of 
the first countries in the world to outlaw cannabis, giving it the same 
status as opium and other narcotics. It's impossible to know what 
influence Murphy's writing had on the decision because there was no 
public or parliamentary debate. As noted by a 2002 Canadian Senate 
committee report, "Cannabis: Our Position for a Canadian Public Policy": 
"Early drug legislation was largely based on a moral panic, racist 
sentiment and a notorious absence of debate."

The Senate report, like the royal commission on the nonmedical use of
drugs chaired by Gerald LeDain in the early 1970s, concluded that the
criminalization of cannabis had no scientific basis, but its use by
adolescents should be discouraged. The LeDain reports, between
1970-73, were ahead of their time-to their detriment. Commissioners
generated reams of studies on all drug use and held cross-country
hearings (even recording John Lennon's pro-pot views during an
in-camera session in Montreal). LeDain recommended the repeal of
cannabis prohibition, stating "the costs to a significant number of
individuals, the majority of whom are young people, and to society
generally, of a policy of prohibition of simple possession are not
justified by the potential for harm." Even in a counterculture era of
love beads and Trudeaumania the recommendations went nowhere.

Obscurity also befell the 2002 Senate report 30 years later. The
senators recommended legalization, as well as amnesty for past
convictions, adding: "We are able to categorically state that, used in
moderation, cannabis in itself poses very little danger to users and
to society as a whole, but specific types of use represent risks to
users," especially the "tiny minority" of adolescents who are heavy
users. Generally, though, the greater harm was not in cannabis use,
the senators said, but in the after-effects of the criminal penalties.

Both reports vanished in a puff of smoke, while 90 years on Emily
Murphy endures. She is celebrated in a statue on Parliament Hill for
her leading role among the Famous Five, who fought in the courts and
were ultimately successful in having women recognized as "persons"
under the law. And she endures in the spirit of Canada's marijuana
laws, which continue to reflect some of her hysterical views. Blame
political cowardice, the fear of being labelled "soft on crime." As a
correspondent to the British medical journal The Lancet said of the
slow pace of change for drug prohibition internationally: "bad policy
is still good politics."

Putting emotions, fears and rhetoric aside, the case for legalizing
personal use of cannabis hangs on addressing two key questions. What
is the cost and social impact of marijuana prohibition? And what are
the risks to public health, to social order and personal safety of
unleashing on Canada a vice that has been prohibited for some 90 years?

The cost of prohibition

Estimates vary wildly on the cost impact of marijuana use and of
enforcement. Back in 2002 the Senate report pegged the annual cost of
cannabis to law enforcement and the justice system at $300 million to
$500 million. The costs of enforcing criminalization, the report
concluded, "are disproportionately high given the drug's social and
health consequences."

Neil Boyd, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University,
concludes in a new study financed by Sensible BC that the annual
police- and court-related costs of enforcing marijuana possession in
B.C. alone is "reasonably and conservatively" estimated at $10.5
million per year. B.C. has the highest police-reported rate of
cannabis offences of any province, and rising: 19,400 in 2011. Of
those, almost 16,600 were for possession, leading to almost 3,800
charges, double the number in 2005. As arrests increase, Boyd
estimates costs will hit $18.8 million within five years. Added to
that will be the cost of jailing people under new mandatory minimum
sentences included in the Safe Streets and Communities Act.

The Conservatives' National Anti-Drug Strategy, implemented in 2007,
shifted drug strategy from Health Canada to the Justice Department.
Most of the $528 million budgeted for the strategy between 2012 and
2017 goes to enforcement, rather than treatment, public education or
health promotion, the drug policy coalition report notes. "Activities
such as RCMP drug enforcement, drug interdiction and the use of the
military in international drug control efforts [further] drive up
policing, military and security budgets," it says.

Canada has always taken a softer line on prosecuting drug offences
than the U.S., which has recorded 45 million arrests since president
Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971. More than half of those
in U.S. federal prison are there for drug offences. The Canadian drug
incarceration rate is nowhere near as high. But the government's
omnibus crime bill includes a suite of harder penalties. It requires a
six-month minimum sentence for those growing as few as six cannabis
plants, with escalating minimums. It also doubled the maximum penalty
to 14 years for trafficking pot. (In Colorado, by contrast, it's now
legal for an adult to grow six plants for personal use or to possess
up to an ounce of marijuana.)

At the heart of the crime bill, in the government's view, is public
safety through criminal apprehension. The party won successive
elections with that as a key election plank, and the senior ministers
for crime and justice see it as an inalterable mandate. Nicholson rose
in the Commons this March saying the government makes "no apology" for
its tough-on-crime agenda, including its war on pot. "Since we've come
to office, we've introduced 30 pieces of legislation aimed at keeping
our streets and communities safe," he said. Public Safety Minister Vic
Toews, in response to the pot legalization votes in Colorado and
Washington, has flatly stated: "We will not be decriminalizing or
legalizing marijuana." Back in 2010, Toews made it clear that public
safety trumps concerns about increasing costs at a time of falling
crime rates. "Let's not talk about statistics," he told a Senate
committee studying the omnibus crime bill. "Let's talk about danger,"
he said. "I want people to be sa! fe."

But there are risks in prohibition, too. The most obvious are the gang
hits and gun battles that indeed impact the safety of Canadian
streets, much of it fuelled by turf battles over the illegal drug
trade. Nor are criminal dealers prone to worry about contaminants in
the product from dubious grow ops, or the age of their customers.

Canadian children and youth, in fact, are the heaviest users of
cannabis in the developed world, according to a report released in
April by UNICEF. The agency, using a World Health Organization (WHO)
survey of 15,000 Canadians, found 28 per cent of Canadian children
(aged 11, 13, and 15) tried marijuana in the past 12 months, the
highest rate among 29 nations. Fewer than 10 per cent admitted to
being frequent users. A Health Canada survey puts the average first
use of pot at 15.7 years, and estimates the number of "youth" (ages
15-24) who have tried pot at a lower 22 per cent-the same rate as a
survey of Ontario high school student use by the Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health.

UNICEF called child marijuana use a "significant concern" for reasons
including possible impacts on physical and mental health as well as
school performance. Canadian youth, it speculated, believe occasional
pot use is of little risk to their health, and "less risky than
regular smoking of cigarettes." UNICEF warned, however, of significant
punitive risks to pot use, including expulsion from school and arrest.
It noted 4,700 Canadians between ages 12 to 17 were charged with a
cannabis offence in 2006. "Legal sanctions against young people
generally lead to even worse outcomes," the report said, "not
improvements in their lives."

Nor do Canada's sanctions curb underage use. Germany, Portugal,
Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands are all countries where pot use has
been decriminalized, legalized or liberalized, and all have rates of
child cannabis use that range from one-third to more than one-half
lower than in Canada. Why Canada's rates are higher is a bit of a
mystery. Part of it is the ready availability from dealers with no
scruples about targeting youth, and the cachet of forbidden fruit-or
rather, buds. Then there's the storm of mixed messages we send young
people. There's the laissez-faire attitude of many parents who used
pot themselves. Then days like the annual 4/20 celebrations every
April 20, when police turn a blind eye to open pot use and sale, cloud
the issue of legality. Even the federal government vilifies cannabis
on one hand, while its health ministry offers a qualified endorsement
of its use as a medicine.

Mason Tvert, a key strategist in Colorado's successful legalization
vote, says criminalization has created an unregulated underground
market of dealers who have no compunction about selling pot to minors.
"Whether you want marijuana to be legal or not is irrelevant. Clearly
there is a need for something to change if our goal is to keep
marijuana from young people," he says in an interview with Maclean's
during a foray into the Lower Mainland to campaign on behalf of
Sensible BC's referendum plan.

If you want to see the value of regulating a legal product, combined
with proof-of-age requirements and public education campaigns, look to
the falling rates of cigarette smoking among young people in both the
U.S. and Canada, Tvert says. "We didn't have to arrest a single adult
for smoking a cigarette in order to reduce teen smoking. So why arrest
adults to prevent teens from using marijuana?"

UNICEF also recommended that child pot use can be reduced more
effectively with the same kind of public information campaigns and
other aggressive measures used to curtail tobacco use. Canadian
children, it noted, have the third-lowest rate of tobacco smokers
among 29 nations. Remarkably, whether you use the 28 or 22 per cent
estimate, more Canadian children have at least tried pot than the
number who who smoke or drink heavily. The WHO data found just four
per cent of Canadian children smoke cigarettes at least once a week,
and 16 per cent said they had been drunk more than twice. It's
noteworthy, too, that tobacco, alcohol and cannabis use by Canadian
children have all declined significantly since the last WHO survey in
2002. Perhaps we underestimate the common sense of our young
people-sometimes at their peril.

There are ample reasons to discourage children from the use of
intoxicants at a time of formative social, physical and emotional
development. It's noteworthy, though, that Canada's teens have at
least chosen a safer vice in pot-apart from its illegality-than either
alcohol or tobacco. As Tvert claims, backed by ample scientific data,
pot is not physically addictive (though people can become
psychologically dependent) and it is less toxic than either tobacco or

An unfair law, unevenly applied

It was a bleak, wet night in March when 100 people gathered in a
lecture hall at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby to hear an unlikely
cast of speakers make the case for marijuana legalization, an event
sponsored by Sensible BC. Among the speakers was Derek Corrigan, the
city mayor, who cut his teeth as a defence lawyer. "Over the course of
my career I gained an understanding of the nature of the people who
were using [cannabis] and realized this was a vast cross-section of
our society," he said. They were everyday people, not criminals, he
said. Most smoke with impunity in their homes and social circles, but
it was young people, without that insulation of social respectability,
whom he most often defended. "In criminal law we used to call it the
'I-didn't-respect-the-officer-enough' offence. If you apologized
enough you were unlikely to be charged," he said. "I found that to be

Among the other speakers was lawyer Randie Long, who used to have a
lucrative sideline as an hourly-paid federal prosecutor dealing with
marijuana charges. There is a corrupting influence to the war on drugs
that hits far closer to home than the cartels, the gangs and the
dealers, he said. It corrupts the police and the justice system
itself. "There's easy money available from the feds for law
enforcement"-all they need are the arrests to justify it. "The
prosecutors use stats. The cops use stats," he said. "Better stats
mean better money."

It's understandable that many believe marijuana possession is
quasi-legal. In Vancouver, it all but is. It is the stated policy of
Vancouver police to place a low priority on enforcing cannabis
possession charges. But outside Vancouver, most B.C. municipalities
are patrolled by local detachments of the federal RCMP-and there, the
hunt is on. Boyd, the criminologist, has taken a hard look at the
numbers. In 2010, for instance, there were only six charges
recommended by Vancouver police where marijuana possession was the
only offence. There is a "striking difference" in enforcement in areas
patrolled by the RCMP, Boyd notes in his report. The rate of all pot
possession charges laid by Vancouver police in 2010 was 30 per
100,000. In RCMP territory, it ranged from 79 per 100,000 in Richmond
and 90 per 100,000 in North Vancouver to almost 300 per 100,000 in
Nelson and 588 per 100,000 in Tofino.

RCMP Supt. Brian Cantera, head of drug enforcement in the province, 
explained the jump in pot possession charges in B.C. as "better work by 
policing the problem." He wrote in an email to Boyd: "Despite the views 
of some, most Canadians do not want this drug around, as they recognize 
the dangers of it. The public does not want another substance to add to 
the carnage on highways and other community problems. Policing is 
reflective of what the public does not want."

Yet many polls suggest what the public does not want is a prohibition
on marijuana. Last year 68 per cent of Canadians told pollster Angus
Reid that the war on drugs is a "failure." Nationally, 57 per cent
said they favour legalizing pot. In B.C., 75 per cent supported moving
toward regulation and taxation of pot. The number of B.C. respondents
who said possessing a marijuana cigarette should lead to a criminal
record: 14 per cent.

Despite the zeal for enforcement, most pot arrests in Canada never
result in convictions. In 2010, just 7,500 of possession charges for
all types of drugs resulted in guilty verdicts-about 10 per cent of
all 74,000 possession offences. Most possession busts never make it to
trial. Of those reaching court, more than half of the charges are
stayed, withdrawn or result in acquittals. This dismal batting average
begs two questions. Is this a wise use of police resources and court
time? And what criteria selected the unlucky 10 per cent with a guilty
verdict? Aside from the probability it is predominantly young males,
there are no national breakdowns by income or race. All told, pot
prohibition is "ineffective and costly," the 2002 Senate report
concluded. "Users are marginalized and exposed to discrimination by
police and the criminal justice system; society sees the power and
wealth of organized crime enhanced as criminals benefit from
prohibition; and governments see their abi! lity to prevent at-risk
use diminished."

The human cost of prohibition

Victoria resident Myles Wilkinson was thrilled to win an
all-expenses-paid trip to the Super Bowl in New Orleans this February.
But when he presented himself to U.S. Customs agents at Toronto's
Pearson International Airport, he was refused entry to the U.S.
because of a marijuana possession conviction-from 1981. "I had two
grams of cannabis. I paid a $50 fine," he told CBC news. He was 19. "I
can't believe that this is happening, for something that happened 32
years ago." But it can and it does, and the fact that Wilkinson's
Super Bowl contest was sponsored by a brewery adds a painful ironic
twist. Wilkinson's predicament is sadly typical. Canadians in their
late teens to mid-20s are by far the most likely to be accused of drug
offences, StatsCan reports. They are also the least likely to be able
to afford the several thousand dollar defence lawyers typically bill
to fight a case that goes to trial.

As for the scale of pot use in Canada, look to the person on your left
and the person on your right. If neither of them have violated the law
by smoking pot then it must be you, and probably one of the others,
too. About 40 per cent of Canadians 15 and older admitted in a 2011
Health Canada survey to have smoked pot in their lifetime. Based on
the number of Canadians 15 and older, that's 10.4 million people. Just
nine per cent of survey respondents said they smoked pot in the last
year, compared to 14 per cent in 2004. Male past-year cannabis users
outnumber females by two to one, and young people 15 to 24 are more
than three times more likely to have smoked pot in the past year
compared to those 25 and older.

The same phone survey of 10,000 Canadians found that the alcohol
consumption of one-quarter of Canadians puts them at risk of such
chronic or acute conditions as liver disease, cancers, injuries and
overdoses. If there is a crisis, it's in that legal drug: alcohol.

Legalization and the risk to public safety

Canadians now have the luxury of looking to the social incubators of
Washington state and Colorado to assess the potential risks of adding
pot to the menu of legalized vices. Critics have already predicted the
outcome: a massive increase in pot use, carnage on the highways, a
lost generation of underperforming stoners coughing up their cancerous
lungs, Hells Angels becoming the Seagram's of weed.

As commentator David Frum described it in a column this spring on the
Daily Beast website: "A world of weaker families, absent parents, and
shrivelling job opportunities is a world in which more Americans will
seek a cheap and easy escape from their depressing reality. Legalized
marijuana, like legalized tobacco, will become a diversion for those
who feel they have the least to lose."

These are all legitimate, if often exaggerated, fears that must be

Will pot use increase? There's little evidence internationally to
suggest a surge in use, at least any more than it has as an easily
obtainable illegal substance. The 2002 Senate report concluded: "We
have not legalized cannabis and we have one of the highest rates [of
use] in the world. Countries adopting a more liberal policy have, for
the most part, rates of usage lower than ours, which stabilized after
a short period of growth."

The Netherlands, where marijuana is available in hundreds of
adult-only coffee shops, is a case in point. The 2012 United Nations
World Drug Report, using its own sources, pegs the level of use there
at just 7.7 per cent of those aged 15 to 64. The U.S. has the
seventh-highest rate of pot smokers, 14.1 per cent, while Canada ranks
eighth at 12.7 per cent. Spain and Italy, which have decriminalized
possession for all psychoactive drugs, are interesting contrasts.
Cannabis use in Italy is 14.6 per cent, while Spain, at 10.6 per cent,
is lower than the U.S. or Canada.

Is cannabis a gateway to harder drugs? Again the 2002 Senate report
concluded after extensive study: "Thirty years' experience in the
Netherlands disproves this clearly, as do the liberal policies in
Spain, Italy and Portugal," the report said. "And here in Canada,
despite the growing increase in cannabis users [at the time of the
report], we have not had a proportionate increase in users of hard
drugs." In fact, use of cocaine, speed, hallucinogens and ecstasy are
all at lower rates than in 2004, the Health Canada survey reported in

The risks of drugged driving: This is undeniably an area of concern,
but one we've lived with for decades. Canadian law since 2008 allows
police to conduct mandatory roadside assessments if drivers are
suspected of drug impairment. There isn't yet a roadside breath or
blood test for drugs, but police can require a blood test under
medical supervision. There were 1,900 drugged driving incidents in
2011-two per cent of all impaired driving offences in Canada.

Washington state has a standard of five nanograms per millilitre of
blood of marijuana's psychoactive chemical, THC, but there is not
always a correlation between those levels and impairment. "We aren't
going to arrest somebody unless there's impairment," Lt. Rob Sharpe,
of Washington's State Patrol Impaired Driving Section, told the
Seattle Times.

So far there has been not a spike in Washington in "green DUIs," as
they're called. One reason for this may be that many studies have
shown that people react recklessly under influence of alcohol, and
cautiously when stoned. One admittedly small study at Israel's Ben
Gurion University found alcohol and THC were "equally detrimental" to
driving abilities. "After THC administration, subjects drove
significantly slower than in the control condition," the study found,
"while after alcohol ingestion, subjects drove significantly
faster." A World Health Organization paper on the health effects of
cannabis use says an impaired driver's risk-taking is one of the
greatest dangers, "which the available evidence suggests is reduced by
cannabis intoxication, by contrast with alcohol intoxication, which
consistently increases risk-taking." Most certainly criminal sanctions
for any form of impaired driving are necessary, as are education campaigns.

What is the health impact of pot? Expect further studies in the states
where legalization has unfettered researchers. In Canada, Gerald
Thomas, an analyst with the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C.,
and Chris Davis, an analyst with the Canadian Centre on Substance
Abuse, used Health Canada data to chart the health and social costs of
cannabis, tobacco and alcohol. Their findings: tobacco-related
health costs are over $800 per user; alcohol-related health costs were
$165 per user; cannabis-related health costs were $20 per user.
Enforcement costs added $153 per drinker and $328 for cannabis user.
In other words, 94 per cent of the cost to society of cannabis comes
from keeping it illegal.

Studies on inhaling pot smoke have yielded some surprising results. A
2006 U.S. study, the largest of its kind, found regular and even heavy
marijuana use doesn't cause lung cancer. The findings among users who
had smoked as many as 22,000 joints over their lives, "were against
our expectations" that there'd be a link to cancer, Donald Tashkin of
the University of California at Los Angeles told the Washington Post.
"What we found instead was no association at all, and even a
suggestion of some protective effect."

Another study compared lung function over 20 years between tobacco and
marijuana smokers. Tobacco smokers lost lung function but pot use had
the opposite effect, marginally increasing capacity, said the study
published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Cannabinoids in marijuana smoke "have been recognized to have
potential antitumour properties," noted a 2009 study by researchers at
Brown University. A study looking at marijuana use and head and neck
squamous-cell cancer found an increased risk for smokers and drinkers,
while "moderate marijuana use is associated with reduced risk."
Certainly it is past time for serious and impartial study of the
benefits and risks of medicinal marijuana, something that
decriminalization would facilitate.

Pot as the lesser of two evils: Let's dispense once and for all with
the stereotype of the unmotivated stoner. There are also unmotivated
drunks, cigarette smokers and milk drinkers. Studies have ruled out
"the existence of the so-called amotivational syndrome," the Senate
report noted a decade ago. Generations of pot smokers from the Boomers
onward have somehow held it together, building families and careers.
Miraculously, the last three U.S. presidents managed to lift
themselves beyond their admitted marijuana use to seek the highest
office in the land. Once there, they forgot whence they came, and
continued the war on drugs.

Consider, too, the opinion of retired Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, 
one of many who convinced a solid majority of voters in Washington state 
last November to endorse legalization. "I strongly believe-and most 
people agree-that our laws should punish people who do harm to others," 
he writes in the foreword to the 2009 bestseller Marijuana is Safer: So 
Why Are We Driving People to Drink? "But by banning the use of marijuana 
and punishing individuals who merely possess the substance, it is 
difficult to see what harm we are trying to prevent. It bears repeating: 
from my own work and the experiences of other members of the law 
enforcement community, it is abundantly clear that marijuana is rarely, 
if ever, the cause of harmfully disruptive or violent behaviour. In 
fact, I would go so far as to say that marijuana use often helps to tamp 
down tensions where they otherwise might exist."

As for pot's health impact, Stamper concurs with the thesis of the
book: study after study finds pot far less toxic and addictive than
booze. "By prohibiting marijuana we are steering people toward a
substance that far too many people already abuse, namely alcohol. Can
marijuana be abused? Of course," he says. But "it is a much safer
product for social and recreational use than alcohol."

Mason Tvert, a co-author of the Marijuana is Safer book, notes
multiple studies show it is impossible to consume enough weed to
overdose, yet as a teen he had to be rushed unconscious by ambulance
to hospital to have his stomach pumped after drinking a near-lethal
amount of alcohol. "We know alcohol kills brain cells without a
doubt," he says. "That's what a hangover is, it's like the funeral
procession for your brain cells."

Tvert, very much a showman in the early days of the legalization 
campaign in Colorado, hammered relentlessly on the "benign" nature of 
pot, compared to alcohol. His organization sponsored a billboard 
featuring a bikini-clad beauty, mimicking the usual approach to peddling 
beer. In this case, though, the message was: "Marijuana: No hangovers. 
No violence. No carbs!"

Tvert went so far as to call anti-legalization opponent John
Hickenlooper, then mayor of Denver, "a drug dealer" because he ran a
successful brew pub. Now, Tvert notes with sweet irony, Hickenlooper
is governor, tasked with implementing the regime for legalized weed.

The rewards of legalization

Stop the Violence B.C.-a coalition of public health officials,
academics, current and former politicians-is trying to take the
emotion out of the legalization debate by building science-based
counter-arguments to enforcement. One of its member studies concludes
B.C. would reap $500 million a year in taxation and licensing revenues
from a liquor-control-board style of government regulation and sale.

While some see those numbers as unduly optimistic, both Washington and
Colorado are looking at lower enforcement costs and a revenue bonanza
from taxation and regulation. An impact analysis for Colorado, with a
population slightly larger than British Columbia, predicts a
$12-million saving in enforcement costs in the first year,
rising to $40 million "as courts and prisons adapt to fewer and fewer
violators." It predicts combined savings and new revenue of $60
million, "with a potential for this number to double after 2017."

In the U.S., so far, the Obama administration has shown no inclination
to use federal drug laws to trump the state initiatives. Dana Larsen
is banking on a similar response from Ottawa, should Sensible BC
manage to get quasi-legalization passed in a September 2014
referendum. The bar is set high. They need to gather, over a 90-day
span this fall, signatures from 10 per cent of the registered voters
in every one of B.C.'s 85 electoral districts to force a
referendum-just as voters rallied to kill the Harmonized Sales Tax,
against the wishes of the federal government. The vote, should it go
ahead, would seek to amend the Police Act, instructing departments not
to enforce cannabis possession. It would be the first step, says
Larsen, to a national repeal of prohibition.

Would the federal government go to war with a province to protect a
90-year-old law built on myths, fears and hysteria; a law that crushed
the ambitions of countless thousands of young people; a law that
millions violate when it suits their purpose? Likely, but it would be
one hell of a fight. After the legalization vote was decided in
Washington last November, the Seattle Police Department posted a
humourous online guide to pot use, entitled Marijwhatnow? Yes, it
said, those over 21 can carry an ounce of pot. No, you can't smoke it
in public. Will Seattle police help federal investigations of
marijuana use in the state? Not a chance. There was, between the
lines, a palpable relief that they no longer had to play bad cops to a
bad law. Marijwhatnow? ended with a clip from Lord of the Rings.
Gandalf and Bilbo are smoking a pipe. "Gandalf, my friend," says
Bilbo, "this will be a night to remember."

Perhaps one day Canadians will be as lucky.
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MAP posted-by: Matt