HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Forget The Marijuana Scare Stories
Pubdate: Thu, 10 Aug 2000
Source: Winnipeg Free Press (CN MB)
Copyright: 2000 Winnipeg Free Press
Contact:  1355 Mountain Avenue, Winnipeg Manitoba R2X 3B6
Fax: (204) 697-7288
Author: Catherine Mitchell


"The ordinary citizen, seeing the assertions implied by the law frequently
belied by pharmacological fact or the effects that he himself experiences
in the use of drugs, has long since ceased to look for a relationship
between the harmfulness of a substance and its classification under
criminal law. In this domain, it must be said that the criminal law is
thoroughly outdated and outworn."

- -- Marie-Andree Bertrand, Le Dain Commission 1973.

In 1973, the Le Dain commission found that little was known of the harmful
uses of cannabis. It also recommended that possession of cannabis be

In 1978, then prime minister Pierre Trudeau was on-side, promising
legislation that would do just that. But then Joe Clark became prime
minister and the issue all but disappeared from the radar screen. Over the
years, with little movement politically to make marijuana possession and
use legal, judges regularly granted discharges or a conditional sentence
for simple possession. Police chiefs have called upon Ottawa to
decriminalize possession, allowing fines to replace criminal charges.

Last week, the Ontario Court of Appeal warned it would stop enforcing the
marijuana law if the federal government didn't move faster to make pot more
available for medical purposes.

In the absence of clear political will, Canadians are watching law
enforcers take the matter into their own hands, reflecting polls that
continue to show upwards of 30 per cent of the population lights up and the
majority support decriminalizing.

In effect, Canadians have landed in a spot where the law of the land is not
supported by the courts, police, public opinion or science. Even Stockwell
Day has used pot. What good does this law serve? And when my kids ask me
what's wrong with smoking pot, what should I say?

Marijuana has been used for 1,000 years by various societies and is not
addictive, as are tobacco and alcohol, says pharmacologist Wayne Lautt.
While there can be a claim that using this drug, like many other
activities, can become psychologically addictive, real physiological
dependence is demonstrated by identifiable withdrawal symptoms, which is
not the case with pot. In fact, the University of Manitoba professor says
there is no scientific evidence that using marijuana does any of the things
teenagers are warned about when the age of experimentation arises -- that
it kills brain cells, lowers testosterone levels in males, depresses immune
systems. All myths, says Lautt, and fodder for scaremongers. It's
accomplished little, he notes, except, as Marie-Andree Bertrand so
succinctly stated almost 30 years ago, to instil suspicion and cynicism in
generation after generation of young adults who learn, by their own
experience, not to trust what government and various agencies present as

In 1972, the Le Dain commission said it appeared colds were soothed by
marijuana use. Today, marijuana use is allowed, by exemption, for medical
purposes. It has been demonstrated, although not scientifically, that those
suffering from painful conditions, the ill effects of chemotherapy and
other ailments find relief using the drug. And, now in the wake of the
Ontario appeal court decision, Torontonian Terry Parker can continue using
marijuana to control his epilepsy. Ottawa has a year to revise the law to
include such a provision or marijuana use will be legal in Ontario.

Lautt, whose area of research centres on diabetes, has some experience,
academically speaking, with marijuana. Immediately following the Le Dain
commission's recommendations to decriminalize, the federal government put
out a call for research on the effects of marijuana. Lautt says $1 million
a year went into funding these studies, but only for proposals that looked
to prove some negative effect, he notes. He was a part of a group at the
University of Montreal that looked at the impact on metabolism through
experiments on animals, a study Lautt says found no ill-effect and to his
knowledge was never published.

Lautt has followed the story of marijuana, legally and scientifically, with
some interest -- it is his job as a scientist, he says, to know what are
the concerns of the day and to be able to advise students and the public
generally on the facts -- and has found no study of value that can point to
ill effects from the drug. Most of the myths have been born of studies in
which extreme amounts of the drug were used, with no reduction to levels
approaching those useful for debate. Intuitively, it makes sense that those
smoking marijuana are at risk of respiratory diseases, he says.

On the other hand, there is lots of harm coming from the criminalization of
marijuana. For decades, those interested in public policy have decried the
criminal records slapped on young people for possessing pot. Lautt says
there's that to be concerned about. But, more, he notes, is the fact the
illegality of pot introduces kids to harder drugs because they are buying
the stuff from pushers who have an interest in getting people hooked.
People don't get hooked on pot, but they might be convinced to try other
mind-altering substances, like heroin and cocaine, that can reel them in
real quick.

So, the question is, why can't we control pot the way alcohol is
controlled. You don't want to hop into a taxi driven by a guy who has been
imbibing all day. Tax it, issue health warnings, educate the youth about
the real health implications. But that would require scientific proof, or
at least a balancing of the probabilities.

It would also mean parents and educators would have to present to kids
clear arguments based on fact about the impact drugs can have on their
lives and good reasons not to use, or at least abuse, them. And it would
remove an easy opportunity for pariahs like pushers to introduce kids to
really dangerous drugs. As it stands, I can only tell my kids to be wary of
pot and beware the law.

Catherine Mitchell is a Free Press editorial writer. Her column appears on
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MAP posted-by: Eric Ernst