HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Ontario, Peace looms in the war on pot
Pubdate:  Tue, 26 Aug 1997

SOURCE: Alberta Report magazine


Peace looms in the war on pot

The 74yearold prohibition against marijuana
could die this week in an Ontario courtroom

The ubiquitous weed: Helpful or hurtful?

Thanks to Chris Clay, marijuana may become legal in Canada this
month. The former owner of Hemp Nation, a cannabis store in London,
Ont., did a roaring business selling marijuana seeds, hemp clothing
and drug paraphernalia like pipes and roachclips. "I was taking
photography at Ryerson when I read The Emperor Wears No Clothes; it
changed my life," says Mr. Clay. The book, by U.S. hemp advocate and
Grassroots Party presidential candidate Jack Herer, blew Mr. Clay's
mind. "It made me realize that hemp is harmless compared to alcohol
and tobacco," says the 26yearold. "I wanted to educate people and I
hoped the store would fund our political activities to change the law."

Mr. Clay, known around London as Hempboy, had always hoped the store would
get busted so he could challenge laws criminalizing marijuana. "I was
frustrated because our letterwriting campaigns and lobbying politicians
weren't doing us any good," he says. On May 17, 1995, Mr. Clay finally got
his wish when police invaded Hemp Nation, charged him with possessing and
trafficking in marijuana and seized $40,000 in merchandise.

On August 14, Ontario Court General Division Justice John McCart will decide
Mr. Clay's guilt or innocence. During a threeweek trial (which ended in
May), Mr. Clay's defence summoned a small army of pharmacologists,
sociologists, criminologists, lawyers and psychologists, all of whom
testified that marijuana does not pose a health or social risk and
therefore should not be outlawed under the Narcotics Control Act. Mr.
Clay's main defence counsel, Osgoode Hall law professor Alan Young, is no
stranger to drug law. Four years ago, he argued in the same court that
federal laws banning drug literature violated freedom of expression
under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He won, and the law was struck down.
"Clay's case is the best one that's been put forward to date that I'm
aware of," says Neil Boyd, a Simon Fraser University criminology professor
and witness for the defence. "I hope it works."

Mr. Justice McCart has three options: he can uphold the existing law, he can
declare it unconstitutional or he can commend it to Parliament for
amendment. Prof. Boyd hopes that, 74 years after Ottawa outlawed marijuana
(see story, page 32), today's politicians will legalize it again. "About
2,000 police officers do drug work
exclusively in Canada," he says, estimating the cost of catching,
prosecuting and punishing marijuana users at anywhere from $200 million to
$2 billion annually. 

Between 1984 and 1989, an average of 58,995 drug charges were laid in Canada
every year. Over twothirds involved cannabis. By 1995, the total number
of drug charges had fallen to 40,373. Of those, 27,180 were
cannabisrelated, including
19,105 for simple possession. That is still too high for Prof. Boyd.
"Postlegalization, court and drug enforcement costs would drop by about
half," he says, adding that criminalization has not stopped people from
toking. "Followups
of people convicted of possession of marijuana show that over 90% of them are
still using it a year later. The war on cannabis has been a failure, no doubt."

The Addiction Research Foundation in Toronto estimates that the percentage of
teens between 12 and 19 who have used marijuana at least once increased from
12.7% in 1993 to 22.7% in 1995. "That's the children of the baby boomers coming
of age," says Prof. Boyd. "They've become adolescents and they're doing what
their parents did." Despite the huge increase, however, fewer teens are smoking
pot now than in 1979, when 31.1% of teens indulged. But pot consumption has
also crept up steadily among those aged 30 to 49, with 15.4% reporting at least
onetime use in 1977, compared to 39.6% in 1994. About 25.7% of men have
used marijuana, compared to 19.8% of women. According to the foundation, pot
use has no relation to a person's family income, level of education or
employment status.

Albert is a 33yearold Edmontonarea electrical contractor and one of the
estimated onein10 Canadian adults who smoke pot regularly. "I've smoked dope
for 15 years and the law never meant st to me," he says. "It's a great way to
alleviate stress and relax. Everybody I know smokes it, and these are solid,
hardworking family people I'm talking about. It's easier for me to score
some pot than it is to go to the liquor store. War on drugs, my ass."

Given the apparent resurgence in consumption, the declining number of pot
charges in the mid1990s suggests waning enthusiasm on the part of the
authorities to carry
on the war as vigorously as before. In Edmonton, for example, the number of
possession arrests fell from 1,391 in 1989 to 529 last year. The increasing
willingness of politicians and other public figuresincluding former
prime minister
Kim Campbell and U.S. President Bill Clintonto admit that they have
used it also
suggests that the drug is being slowly destigmatized.

Most Canadians do not support prohibition anyway. A 1995 Health Canada poll
found that 69% of Canadians are against incarcerating people for pot possession.
Twentyseven percent of the respondents favoured full legalization; 42.1%
favoured keeping marijuana illegal but making possession punishable by a fine or
nonjail sentence. Only 16.8% of respondents favoured criminal sanctions for
firsttime possession, while 14.1% were undecided. Support for relaxing
the laws is
stronger among men than women, and highest among people of the babyboom
generation or younger. And while the most audible proponents of
legalization tend
to be young people associated with leftist causes, they have allies in
circles. Michael Walker, head of the rightwing Fraser Institute in
Vancouver, has
written in the institute's publication Fraser Forum that marijuanaand
most other
illegal drugsought to be legalized because suppression fosters far more
destructive criminal activity. His view is shared by conservative
luminaries such as
former U.S. secretary of state George Schultz, National Review founder
William F.
Buckley Jr. and Nobel prizewinning economist Milton Friedman.

Prof. Young largely ignored the social cost arguments in his defence of
Mr. Clay. Instead, he focused on the Charter's Section 7, which protects
individuals' right to life, liberty and security of the person, except
when those rights collide with the interests of "fundamental justice."
"The Charter places certain restrictions on the state," says Prof. Young.
"The lawmakers cannot pass laws that are arbitrary and capricious. The law
is overbroad here. Parliament has never heard documented proof that
marijuana is harmful enough to merit [banning]. We have to convince the
judge that Parliament does not have constitutional authority to
criminalize conduct which is relatively harmless."

Diane Riley, an assistant behaviourial science professor at the
University of Toronto and a policy analyst at the university's Canadian
Foundation of Drug Policy, testified at the trial that marijuana is not
harmful enough to warrant prohibition.
Discussing the common perception that marijuana is a "gateway drug" to harder
drugs like cocaine and heroin, Dr. Riley testified in her affidavit:
"Current research indicates that about 67% of marijuana users never even
try any type of 'hard' drug...In fact, marijuana is one of the safest
psychoactive substances and is clearly
safer than licit drugs such as alcohol and tobacco." 

The drug has been accused of causing shortterm memory loss, kidney damage,
genital abnormalities, infertility and psychological illness, but decades
of clinical research have failed to produce much proof. Marijuana's
biggest proven drawback is its mild sedative effect; operating a car or
heavy machinery under its influence can be dangerous. Scientists have also
suggested that a single marijuana joint could be as harmful to the heart
and lungs as five or more regular cigarettes. But as Prof. Boyd points out
in his 1991 book High Society: Legal and Illegal Drugs in Canada,
the average marijuana smoker puffs an average of three to five joints per week
while the average smoker sucks back a whopping 200 cigarettes.

Although marijuana is a hallucinogenic drug, Dr. Riley sees no connection
between it and psychotic behaviour. The drug "mostly relaxes people, makes
them friendly, on occasion can lead to shortterm nausea, and often makes
them sleepy," she said in her affidavit. "The drug does not make people
more aggressive or violent." Albert agrees. "I've seen guys get drunk and
start fights, try to hit their wives," he
says. "I've never seen anyone beat their wives when they were stoned on
marijuana. The worst thing I've seen them do is steal food out of my
refrigerator because they had the munchies real bad."

Others tell a different tale. Fred, for instance, is a 50yearold
Edmontonian who says he smoked obsessively for about 20 years. "I was
hooked real bad," he says,
so bad that he went to the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission for help.
"It was messing up my family, my relationship with my kids, and my work."
AADAC counsellors helped Fred break his psychological addiction and he gave
up marijuana for years. Today he smokes it occasionally, but says he has to be
careful about controlling his consumption. He fears that if pot were
legalized, he would return to compulsive use.

Though he has a lot of clients like Fred, AADAC's executive program director
Brian Kearns is not opposed to decriminalization. "I don't believe the
public good would be served by someone going to jail for marijuana use,"
he says. "But we are
not on the bandwagon to support its legalization. We already have huge concerns
about a legal drug like tobacco, which we are now trying to eradicate. We have
concerns about how marijuana is ingested, as its high tar content does
cause health problems."

The tar content is undeniably high, but even chronic pot users are now
smoking less than they used to because the potency of marijuana is much
greater. As a result of
sophisticated breeding and hightech cultivation techniques, today's cannabis
contains as much as 23% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient
in hemp), over four times more than average street pot contained 30 years
ago. In fact, Calgary police acting Inspector Mike Cullen says Alberta
hydroponic marijuana has a growing reputation as the world's most potent
weed. "It's been suggested this is because of our water, I don't know," he
says. "In the B.C. interior
or the gulf islands, you'll find outside groves and the plants will grow
way less pot than a plant grown in a hydroponic setup." But Prof. Boyd
says increased THC is good. "People don't have to smoke five or 10 joints
to get stoned anymore. Three or four puffs are enough to do the job, so
you're inhaling less smoke and it's healthier for your lungs."

Almost no one associated with the legalization lobby wants the drug to be
totally unregulated. Even Mr. Clay has reservations. "I'm hoping that [Mr.
Justice McCart] will at least make marijuana legal for medical use and
decriminalize recreational use so possession is like a parking ticket,
where you get a fine and no criminal record." But then, he adds, the black
market would still control the market, making millions for organized
crime. So limited legalization is his goal, as opposed
to what he calls "pot anarchy...there should be quality controls and
taxation, just like with alcohol. And minors should not be allowed to use

There is evidence suggesting that Ottawa is considering precisely the
same ideas. Early in July, a freedom of information request by researcher
Ken Rubin unearthed
a series of Health Canada internal memoranda which revealed that
departmental bureaucrats are already looking at ways to control
marijuana's strength and tax its sale after legalization.

Even if the Hemp Nation court challenge fails, growing support for the
medical use of cannabis may prove to be the thin edge of the wedge that
finally pries the law
open. In an interview with Southam News late last month, Hedy Fry, the
federal minister in charge of multiculturalism and women's issues, spoke
up in favour of
medicinal marijuana. "It's time for the debate," said the minister, who
is also a medical doctor. "I think it has been shown that there has been
some really good
clinical outcomes of using marijuana for terminal diseases...If we know
that it works
in any form, then what we should be talking about is its use in other
forms, such as
smoking it. I think we should be moving toward looking at that...for
people with terminal diseases." Dr. Fry, whose comments were endorsed by
Reform Party MP Keith Martin (who is also a doctor), promised to make her
concerns known to Health Minister Allan Rock.

Those words cheer Hilary Black. Four months ago, the 21yearold founded the
Cannabis Compassion Club in Vancouver. The club provides discount weed to
sufferers of AIDS, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and cancer who can provide a
doctor's prescription or note saying they need the drug. "The demand is
overwhelming," Ms. Black says. "I get flooded with calls from all over
Canada. I'll go to lunch and when I get back there's 75 messages on my
answering machine. About 70% of my patients suffer from AIDS. The triple
combination viral drugs they take make them so nauseous, some of the
people I deal with are as sick from AIDS treatments as people taking
chemotherapy. Every city, large or small, needs a place like mine."

Glen Hillson, a treatment information counsellor with the B.C. Persons
With AIDS Society, agrees. In addition to pot being an effective
antinausea agent, "sleep disorders are very common for people with HIV
and marijuana is very good at helping with that," he says. "Some people
also find marijuana helps them deal with
the stress factors arising from AIDS." But pot is not a cureall.
Although many glaucoma sufferers claim that smoking marijuana reduces
pressure within their eyes,
it also cuts the blood supply to their optic nerves, which can hasten the
progress of the disease. And Eduardo Bruera, director of palliative care
at Edmonton's Cross
Cancer Institute, says there are now better (and legal) drugs on the
market for fighting nausea in chemotherapy patients than marijuana,
although he notes that some patients prefer pot for its relaxing side

Although the Vancouver police have left the Compassion Club alone so far,
Alberta law enforcement has shown no reluctance to bust medicinal pot
users. Last month, Calgarian John Kinsey, who has been confined to a
wheelchair since a 1983 back injury, received a oneyear conditional
sentence after pleading guilty to
charges of possessing and cultivating a narcotic. The 52yearold Kinsey, who
reportedly smokes up to 10 joints a day to ease his pain, was caught growing
about 40 marijuana plants worth $23,000 in a hydroponics operation in his

Canada's most noted advocate of legalization for medicinal purposes is probably
Grant Krieger, a 43yearold multiple sclerosis sufferer from Regina.
Last May, he was arrested in the Netherlands as he was about to fly home
to Canada with more than two pounds of marijuana. He was also busted
smoking a joint on the courthouse steps in Calgary during Mr. Kinsey's
sentencing hearing. "I wanted to give John support," he says. "We're not
ordinary users. This is life and death for us and I'll risk anything."

If the issue is life and death, why are baby boomer politicians not
standing up for decriminalization? "I haven't smoked a fat one for 15
years but I'm telling you, if I
get a terminal diagnosis, the first thing I'm going to do is roll one,"
says one Alberta MLA, who wants his name and his party withheld. "But I
don't think you're going
to see me or too many other politicians coming out on this. There's no
upside. I
think we're all watching kids going into detox now and saying, this was
fine for us, but it's not fine when our children are doing it."

Another provincial MLA, from a different party, agrees. "I don't think
anyone gets busted for a joint anymore," he says. "And this whole issue is
in the shadows for us. There's a real smallc conservative thing going in
Canada right now where people are concerned about chastity and what family
values mean. I don't get a sense when I talk to my constituents that this
is an urgent thing. It's never come up at their
doors. If this was a zerotolerance type of province where someone's
18yearold son could get a criminal record for one joint, I think my
constituents would be a lot more concerned."

Chances are that a lot of those constituents are cool to the idea of pot
legalization because they are troubled by the preponderance of other,
legal drugs in society.
Statistics Canada reports that 74.4% of Canadians over 15 drink alcohol.
About 70% drink coffee and some 25% smoke tobacco. Pharmacists wrote more
than580,000 prescriptions last year for Ritalin, a drug commonly
prescribed for inattentive children. Moodaltering antidepressants like
Valium are widely used,
and there is a burgeoning market for hormone supplements like Melatonin
that are supposed to counter everything from sleeplessness to lethargy.

Prof. Boyd contends that as drugaddled societies go, Canada is rather
ordinary. "We know that opium was very [popular] in China at the turn of
the century," he says. "Hashish has been a staple mindaltering substance
in the Middle East and
through Pakistan and India." Peter Young, who bought Hemp Nation from Mr.
Clay when the latter's legal battles drove him out of the business,
agrees. "Peyote's been eaten in Mexico forever," he says. "In Columbia
they've been chewing on
coca leaves for a high since the plant's been around." People may not
like having pot around, he says, and they are entitled to their opinion.
But their opinion has not made a lot of difference. 

  Davis Sheremata