HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Support Grows For Legalized Marijuana
Pubdate: Tue, 08 Aug 2000
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Copyright: The Vancouver Sun 2000
Contact:  200 Granville Street, Ste.#1, Vancouver BC V6C 3N3
Fax: (604) 605-2323
Author: Chad Skelton


Although Public Opinion Has Shifted To Support Decriminalization, It Will Likely Be Difficult To Get Politicians To Act.

Pot is making a comeback.

After vaulting to the top of the national agenda in the 1960s and '70s, the marijuana movement went into virtual hibernation in the 1980s -- an issue only of concern to a few academics and unreformed hippies as the War on Drugs marched on.

But a few years ago, something changed. Marijuana went mainstream.

Pot use among high-school students began to skyrocket. Health Canada launched a study to look at the health benefits of cannabis. And support for decriminalization began to grow.

In a poll conducted in March, the Gallup Organization found only 22 per cent of Canadians supported the law against marijuana possession -- less than half what it was just 10 years ago.

Another 48 per cent thought possession should only carry a fine, and 28 per cent said it should not be an offence at all. (Support for total decriminalization was highest in B.C., at 33 per cent.)

Remarkably, support for decriminalization is now higher than it was in 1977, when only 23 per cent of Canadians polled by Gallup thought possession should be legal.

And the poll also showed that, on the issue of medical marijuana, Canadians have reached something close to a consensus -- with 84 per cent supporting medicinal marijuana for those who need it.

Young people are embracing the drug in a way not seen since the '60s. Last year, a survey of B.C. teens found 40 per cent had tried marijuana at least once, up from 25 per cent in 1992.

Other surveys have shown figures for marijuana use among Canadian teens double what they were in the 1980s, although still lower than in the late '70s when as many as one in three teens were regular pot smokers.

"Youth today have once again seized on [marijuana] as a drug of choice," said John Conroy, a lawyer in Abbotsford who defends those charged with marijuana offences.

"And you have a lot of young people who don't drink, don't smoke tobacco -- but smoke pot."

Carol Sherman, a writer in Toronto, co-wrote a book last year called Highlights: An Illustrated History of Cannabis.

She believes the public's softening attitude towards marijuana has been driven by the relatively new medical marijuana debate. Many health professionals now argue marijuana can be an effective treatment for those suffering everything from AIDS to leukemia.

Denying marijuana that can help the sick offends Canadians' sense of basic compassion, Sherman said. And there is a more self-centred concern: baby-boomers are beginning to wonder if they might need pot as they age and become ill.

The Gallup poll last March showed that while support for decriminalization of pot for recreational use is highest among those 18 to 29, support for medicinal marijuana is highest among boomers.

A total of 89 per cent of Canadians in their forties support medicinal marijuana, the poll said, compared to 82 per cent of those in their twenties.

Marijuana is also creeping back into mainstream culture.

While there is no modern equivalent of the Cheech and Chong movies of the late '70s, the past few years have seen the release of several marijuana-themed movies including Homegrown and, just this month, Saving Grace.

But perhaps more significant, casual marijuana use is showing up more and more in mainstream films.

In both American Beauty and Wonderboys, major characters use marijuana without ill effects.

Even in the weepy family film Stepmom, Susan Sarandon's character casually smokes pot to relieve the symptoms of her cancer.

"Maybe it's slowly becoming more acceptable to talk about," Sherman said.

Will the shift in public opinion lead to a shift in laws? Not necessarily.

During the last surge of support for decriminalization in the 1970s, reform seemed imminent.

In 1972, the federal LeDain Commission published a report calling for decriminalization.

Two years later, the Trudeau government introduced a bill to reduce the penalty for a first-possession offence to a fine -- but it died on the order paper.

Again in 1980, at the opening of the 32nd Parliament, the Speech to the Throne proclaimed "it is time ... to move cannabis offences to the Food and Drugs Act and remove the possibility of imprisonment for simple possession."

Since then, however, marijuana decriminalization has not been on Ottawa's agenda.

But this time could be different, some say, because the move to make marijuana available as medicine could make justifying the laws against recreational use more difficult.

"Where is the line between the two?" Conroy said. "People just smoking it at parties -- that's recreational. But if you've got people doing it on a regular basis because of stress or depression ... is that recreational? I wonder if it's a distinction without a purpose."
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