HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Many Other Countries Try Decriminalization
Pubdate: Wed, 11 Dec 2002
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Page: A10
Copyright: 2002, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Graeme Smith


Easing marijuana laws would remove Canada from the "lonely corner" it now 
shares with the few remaining Western countries that use criminal 
convictions to punish users, experts say.

As an all-party committee of MPs prepares to release a report in Ottawa 
tomorrow that could recommend decriminalizing marijuana, researchers say 
too many people are unaware that such legal changes are already common 
around the world.

"Pretty much all the countries are doing this," said Benedikt Fischer of 
the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

Sweden and the United States are among the last countries to enforce strict 
laws against possession. Small-scale possession can mean six months of jail 
time in Sweden and up to four years of jail in the United States. About 
half of all drug convictions in those countries are for cannabis possession.

Most others are moving to more liberal policies, despite international 
treaties such the 1988 Vienna Convention that outlawed possession, purchase 
and cultivation of drugs for personal consumption.

The International Narcotics Control Board declared in 1992 that none of the 
conventions force governments to convict or punish people who use illegal 

That's the legal loophole that authorities in the Netherlands began using 
in the 1970s. Dutch marijuana users can still technically spend a month in 
jail for possession, but police have been told to ignore anyone with less 
than 30 grams, and they tolerate "coffee shops" that sell the drug.

"Despite the overarching framework of prohibition, each country is trying 
to extricate itself," said senior scientist Patricia Erickson, another 
researcher at CAMH. "The overall trend is away from punitive measures."

The trend began with the Dutch, but many other governments have also eased 
their laws. Australia, Austria, Greece, Ireland and the United Kingdom have 
designed legal mechanisms to give marijuana smokers -- especially first 
offenders -- warnings, tickets or treatment instead of punishment.

Some jurisdictions have claimed success with these non-criminal measures 
because the drug users aren't saddled with criminal records, and burdens on 
the court system are generally lighter.

But some decriminalized systems are actually more Draconian than the laws 
they replaced, Mr. Fischer said, because police officers who might have 
chosen to turn a blind eye in the past are now writing numerous, expensive 

"Sometimes these new forms of social control can be much more onerous," Mr. 
Fischer said. "You can make the system much worse."

Other countries are more permissive, even though strict laws remain on the 
books. Belgium, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland operate with de facto 
decriminalization because prosecutors or police have wide discretion about 
whether to pursue possession cases and usually don't consider them 
important. Swiss authorities are even debating whether to allow marijuana 

Another group of countries, including Italy, Spain and Portugal, has passed 
laws fully decriminalizing marijuana. In Portugal, for instance, drug users 
are now exempt from criminal proceedings and are referred instead to health 

Canada's proximity to the United States shouldn't keep it from joining the 
global trend, said Eric Single, a professor of public health at the 
University of Toronto. Americans are unlikely to risk crossing the border 
to buy marijuana if Canada liberalizes its laws, he said, because the drug 
is already so readily available in the U.S. But like other experts, he said 
it's still unclear how changes in Canada's laws will compare with those of 
other countries.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Beth