Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Pubdate: Mon, 06 Apr 1998
Author: Isabel Vincent The Globe and Mail


On Sept. 15, 1997, Lynn Harichy set out to break the law. The 36-year-old
resident of London, Ont., contacted the local news media and announced she
was on her way to the London Police Department to smoke marijuana. By the
time she arrived, a crowd of cheering supporters had rallied outside the
police station and were handing her marijuana cigarettes as she walked
defiantly up the station steps. Ms Harichy, who didn't even have a chance
to light up, was arrested on the spot.

"I felt I had to make a point," said the soft-spoken woman, who has
multiple sclerosis and says she has been smoking marijuana for a year in an
effort to relieve her pain. "I can't live without it [marijuana] and I
didn't want my neighbours to call Crime Stoppers and bother my children, so
I went to them. I went to get arrested."

Ms. Harichy is one of several Canadians who have gone directly to the
police and the courts in the past two years to challenge what they say are
the country's anachronistic drug laws. Along with many AIDS sufferers, who
smoke marijuana to treat nausea and vomiting associated with the disease
and AZT drug therapy, Ms. Harichy wants legislators to decriminalize
marijuana for therapeutic use.

The decriminalization movement is joined by hundreds of recreational
smokers who also say that the country's laws against cannabis are outdated
and out of step with the rest of the Western world, where many governments
have eased restrictions on possession and use of the drug in the past few

The decriminalization proponents have lately found themselves in a pitched
battle with Canadian law -enforcement officials, who say cannabis is a
dangerous drug, and its possession and consumption should not be tolerated
in any circumstances.

"This is the greatest injustice being committed in Canada," said Marc
Emery, a Vancouver-based professional activist and publisher of Cannabis
Canada Magazine. Mr. Emery, who used to own an Amsterdam-style coffee house
in Vancouver where patrons could buy and smoke marijuana, is paying for Ms.
Harichy's legal defense and is bankrolling a number of other
cannabis-related cases in an effort to force a political and legal
reckoning on use of the drug in Canada.

"Three million people in Canada use marijuana. Many people grow it in their
homes, and the police go after them with automatic weapons and SWAT teams.
It's ludicrous," said Mr. Emery, who has been arrested four times for
selling high-grade cannabis seeds to buyers in the United States. Mr.
Emery, who is facing 15 counts of trafficking and possession, said he was
recently forced to sell his Cannabis Cafe, which had been raided twice by
law-enforcement officials.

Like his counterparts in the decriminalization crusade, Mr. Emery, 40, says
the drug is relatively harmless and much safer than alcohol or tobacco.
Moreover, he argues, poll after poll has shown that a majority of Canadians
support the decriminalization of the drug, or at least a change in policy
regulating its use.

But many law-enforcement officials argue that medical research on the
effects of the long-term use of marijuana are inconclusive, and that
contemporary marijuana, which is produced from the cannabis plant, is much
stronger that than it was in the 1960s. They say marijuana's THC levels are
much higher today than they were 20 years ago. THC stands for
tetrahydrocannabinol and is the active ingredient in the drug that gives
smokers their high.

"Right now, the THC level in marijuana is between 16 and 20 per cent.
Twenty years ago it was between 3 and 5 per cent," said RCMP Constable
Scott Rintoul, who is part of the force's drug-enforcement unit in

But the higher THC content means people actually need to smoke less of the
drug to get high, decriminalization supporters say.

"We're really concerned," said Constable Rintoul, adding that, according to
some of the scientific studies distributed by the RCMP, marijuana's effects
last up to eight times longer than those of alcohol. "Right now, aside from
alcohol, marijuana is the No. 1 drugs that we find on impaired drivers. We
can't handle all the problems that we have with alcohol and tobacco right
now. Why would we want to decriminalize another menacing drug?"

He said the RCMP is so concerned about marijuana-impaired drivers that the
force has recently trained 40 "drug-recognition officers" in British
Columbia. These traffic officers now administer a series of drug tests to
impaired drivers to determine whether they have been smoking marijuana.
British Columbia, where statistics show marijuana consumption is the
highest in the country, is the first province to implement this strategy,
which the RCMP hope to adopt in other provinces.

According to Constable Rintoul, the RCMP have been concentrating on the
traffickers and those who grow marijuana in their homes for profit.
Although they are concerned about marijuana users, who they say are more
likely than non-users to try harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin, their
focus is now almost exclusively on the production end of cannabis and not
on recreational use.

According to Statistics Canada, cannabis accounted for 72 percent of the
65,000-plus Canadian drugs offences reported in 1996 and for 67 per cent of
the 43, 855 people charged.

Critics cringe when they see such statistics arguing that law-enforcement
officials spend more time cracking down on cannabis related offences than
they do on more serious crimes such as homicide and sexual assault.

"Most of the RCMP claims about the dangers of marijuana are idiotic,
unfounded and inaccurate," said Alan Young, a professor of law at Osgoode
Hall Law School in Toronto who has been researching cannabis policy for the
past 10 years and is lead defense counsel on several cases, including Ms.
Harichy's, that are seeking to force the decriminalization of cannabis.
"The only way that the prohibition of this drug is maintained is through
the dissemination of propaganda and the use of medical studies that are
outdated and discredited by the scientific community," he said.

Indeed, in a recent Ontario case in which Christopher Clay was charged with
trafficking in cannabis, the presiding judge said that after, analyzing the
scientific evidence on the effects of marijuana presented at the trial, he
had concluded that "consumption of marijuana is relatively harmless
compared to the so-called hard drugs and including tobacco and alcohol."

Although Mr. Clay was found guilty of trafficking, Mr. Justice J.F. McCart
of the Ontario Court's General Division said that "there exists no hard
evidence demonstrating any irreversible organic or mental damage from the
consumption of marijuana."

Decriminalization advocates such as Mr. Young, who is appealing the
decision in Mr. Clay's case argue that if the drug were to be legalized
regulations could be introduced that would prevent unscrupulous traffickers
from selling marijuana mixed with sometimes harmful contaminants.

Although both sides cannot agree on the drug's long-term effects, both
accuse the federal government of being totally unresponsive to the issue.

"It's the ostrich effect," Mr. Young said. "They just ignore the whole
issue in the hope that it will go away."

Charles Perkins, a member of one of the few Canadian anti-cannabis groups,
agrees. "I have been to Ottawa several times to discuss this issue and I've
been totally ignored," said Mr. Perkins, spokesman for the Sarnia-based
Lambton Families in Action for Drug Education, Inc. which promotes drug
awareness in local schools.

According to a 1995 study by Health and Welfare Canada, 70 per cent of
Canadians want a change in the law in drug policy related to cannabis and
said they were opposed to the use of jail sentences to combat marijuana
use. For different reasons, many activists on both sides of the
decriminalization struggle say that the Canadian legislation on cannabis is
rather outdated and vague.

In this country, the history of drug prohibition legislation goes back to
the 1911 Opium and Drug Act, which contained no reference to marijuana. In
1923, cannabis was added to the list of prohibited drugs, without any
discussion or debate in the House of Commons about its inclusion.

Why, critics ask, was the drug included, especially given that until 1937
there were no convictions for possession of marijuana, and for the next 20
years the conviction rate hovered between zero and 12 per cent? In fact,
there were no significant numbers of recorded offences until the late
1960s, when marijuana increased in popularity among young,
upper-middle-class adults.

Many critics say the inclusion of the drug in the act was spurred by the
writings of a crusading Edmonton magistrate named Emily Murphy. In 1920,
she published a series of sensational articles in Maclean's magazine on the
"horrible" effects of drug use and the deliberate attempts of "evil,"
mainly foreign, drug traffickers to corrupt Canadian youth, the articles
were collected in a book called The Black Candle, which was published in

Ms. Murphy's extremist views were derived from mainly from interviews with
U.S. law-enforcement officers. In one instance she quotes the Los Angeles
chief of police on the evils of marijuana: "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 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

According to Judge McCart, who cited Ms. Murphy's views in the Clay case,
"it was in this climate of irrational fear that the criminal sanctions
against marijuana were enacted."

The law has remained largely unchanged since the 1920's even though a royal
commission in 1973 concluded that the government should consider its

In the Netherlands, marijuana can be openly purchased in licensed
establishments throughout the country. In Germany, public prosecutors now
have discretionary power to dismiss minor cases of drug possession
unconditionally, or they can levy fines and insist that the accused do
community service for the infraction. In Spain, a 1995 amendment to the
penal code says that possession of any illegal drug for personal use is no
longer subject to criminal sanctions.

Proponents of decriminalization say that Canadian legislators are loath to
reform cannabis policy because of pressure from the United States, where in
most parts of the country the possession of cannabis is still subject to
criminal sanctions.

"We can't seem to get beyond the repressive American policy on drugs," said
Mr. Young, citing what he called the strong influence of the U.S.
government's so-called war on drugs, which came to a head under the
Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the 1970s
and 1980s. "If we were to reforms our laws, it would put tremendous
pressure on U.S. lawmakers to do the same. So we maintain this cowardly
insistence of being little foot soldiers to the American war on drugs."

For their part, Canadian law-enforcement officials say they are under
pressure from their U.S. counterparts to get tougher on marijuana,
especially its export to California, Washington and Oregon, where a great
deal of marijuana grown in British Columbia ends up.

Although there are no official statistics on the amount of cannabis grown
in B.C., both police and cannabis supporters say it is a mutibillion-dollar
industry in the province.

The RCMP and regional police forces are pushing for stricter legislation to
allow them to get tough with those who have turned the cultivation of
cannabis into a lucrative and growing cottage industry, using hydroponic
gardens in their homes.

Despite the efforts of local authorities, civil disobedience  on the
decriminalization issue appears to be growing exponentially. According to
Mr. Young, "every major municipality has a hemp store, openly selling drug
paraphernalia, despite the fact that there is a law in the books
prohibiting the sale of drug paraphernalia." In Toronto There is a 24-hour
cannabis-information line, run by a cannabis retail and advocacy group
called The Friendly Stranger.

Those fighting for decriminalization on the medical front got a boost last
December when an Ontario judge ruled that Terry Parker could cultivate and
possess cannabis to control his epilepsy.

Buoyed by the decision, Ms Harichy and others have joined to set up buyers'
clubs, groups that buy marijuana and distribute it to those who have
demonstrated medical need of it. Ms. Harichy, who recently opened the
London Cannabis Compassion Centre, says the organization plans to sell
marijuana to those who present the group with and authorized physician's

"Civil disobedience is necessary," Ms. Harichy said. "The police will not
listen to facts. All they are interested in is putting more 'reefer
madness' out there."