HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Cultivating A Better Marijuana Law
Pubdate: Tue, 12 Sep 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: Gerald McDuff


OTTAWA -- Act tough on drug trafficking and go easy on marijuana users:
That's the course the federal Liberals will likely continue to follow as
they claim the political middle ground as theirs.

They only seriously began to examine marijuana's potential health benefits
in the last few years, but even then people were still being arrested for
possession. The government was so uptight that they brushed aside arguments
for a broad legalization of its use. Instead, they authorized exclusions
for self-treatment with the drug one case at a time and left overall
control with police.

Now marijuana is enjoying a political revival. Possession in some
circumstances has become legal since an Ontario Appeals Court judge struck
down the federal drug law last July and gave Ottawa a year to rewrite or
annul it. Even if the federal government challenges the ruling in the
Supreme Court, the Ontario decision may set the trend for the rest of the

Guilt by association is a problem too. Marijuana has been cast as the demon
weed since the 1930s and linked to out-of-control addicts, the morally
suspect and criminal suppliers, such as biker gangs. Obviously, no
government wants to be grouped with anyone in that bunch.

Add the fact that crime-fighting is still popular, even though offences
have been dropping steadily. The Canadian Alliance, picking up where the
old Reform Party left off, has crime-busting in its program and is
supported by friends in the police lobby. Courts have been lenient in
sentencing for the possession of small quantities of pot. Whether they will
even hear cases for this offence in the future is far from clear.

That may not stop the police from continuing raids on growers as they did
recently in British Columbia. Ontario's provincial police could still be
doing their helicopter sweeps of the countryside trying to spot hidden

Their model enforcer could be U.S. President Bill Clinton and his war on
drugs. Marijuana is on the U.S. list of dangerous substances, though there
is no evidence the drug is harmful. It's not farfetched to assume the
Americans don't mind leaning on their allies and persuading Canada to crack
down on marijuana production.

In Parliament, the Liberals will have to face down the official Opposition
Alliance if they soften the approach towards the use of the drug. The
Commons reconvenes on Sept. 18 and the government has till the end of the
month to contest the Ontario court's judgment.

The liberalizing measures the government took even before the court ruling
were neither extensive nor overly tolerant. As of Aug. 22, Health Minister
Allan Rock had granted 66 exemptions for compassionate purposes, a practice
he introduced last year. Health Canada says permissions will continue on an
individual basis.

Smoking or ingesting the plant can alleviate the symptoms of various
diseases, from cancer and AIDS to multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and
glaucoma. Intended or not, the federal government set a legal trap for
anyone wanting immunity.

To be excluded from a criminal charge, sufferers looking for relief must
have the gardening skill to grow their own plants. Buying is still illegal.
And getting an approval from government is more complicated than simply
applying to Health Canada.

Even after a supply is found, a doctor has to be certain that marijuana
will be a more effective pain or discomfort reliever than other medicines
or treatments. Only then will a physician support a request for an

One doctor said he has signed off federal exemption applications for
several patients. Asked how they got the dope, he rolled his eyes towards
the ceiling and raised his shoulders in a classic gesture that meant he
didn't know or care about their methods. But chances the sick will go this
route are slim if they can get around a drug law that is no longer in

In the government, the federal Public Works Department is expected to award
a contract by the end of the year for domestically produced, research-grade
marijuana for clinical trials. The product will be distributed by Health
Canada to regionally based Canadian Institutes of Health Research that will
do tests over five years financed with grants from a $1.5-million program.

While these arrangements are going ahead, there may be comfort for the
seriously ill marijuana consumers at some point in the trials: They could
be included among "patients unresponsive to usual treatment," according to
a department document.

Of course, any fine-tuning of marijuana controls could be pointless.
Thousands of seeds may already be germinating in sealed basements and
makeshift hothouses since the federal law was thrown out.

Gerald McDuff is an editor with the Issues Network.
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