Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Canada: update our marijuana laws

Globe and Mail Editorial, June 8, 2011
 On July 1, Connecticut will become the 14th American state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, without going so far as to legalize the drug. It is in no way fitting that the new rules take effect on Canada Day. Canada continues to treat possession of marijuana for personal use as a crime, and to waste government resources on doing something about it.
Mexico’s former foreign minister on the Mexico-Canada relationship It may surprise Canadians that so many states have moved to decriminalize marijuana – handing out fines akin to speeding tickets. At the state level, it has now become possible for legislators of both parties in the United States to admit that the war on drugs has been a costly failure.
It is a bit too early to speak of an emerging consensus south of the border. But the voices being heard more often are those like Brenda Kupchick, a Republican member of the state legislature: “I've known a lot of people over my lifetime who've used marijuana, and who grew up to be productive citizens and never used drugs again. And I know people who took drugs out of their parents’ medicine cabinet and became full-blown drug addicts and lost their lives.”
In Connecticut, possession of less than a half-ounce (30 joints) would result in a $150 fine for a first offence, and between $200 and $500 on subsequent offences. Those 21 or under caught using marijuana will lose their driver’s licences for 60 days. In Alaska, possession of up to one ounce of marijuana in a private home brings no penalty at all. A set of U.S. studies has found that, when cannabis was decriminalized, use did not rise any more than in states where possession remained a crime.
Canada’s possession laws are an expensive irrelevancy. In 2009, there were 48,981 incidents of cannabis possession reported by police. While there is no up-to-date estimate on the annual costs of enforcement, a reputable 2002 study put them at $300-million. All this for a “relatively harmless” drug, as the Ontario Court of Appeal has called it. Canada has not even been able to get its act together to make marijuana truly available for medicinal use, according to an Ontario judge who has ordered Ottawa to fix the medical-marijuana law.
There is a social/religious/moral/traditional "mental block" to decriminalizing marijuana in Canada.
The block itself, verges on a kind of conventional prohibition without the legislation needed to support it.
There is a chasm of difference between the opinions of most middle and senior aged Canadians, and the opinions of those under forty. It smacks of a kind of "generation" or class divide. Of course, any taboo substance has its prophets, not to mention its profits and marijuana certainly qualifies on both counts in Canada.
There is a serious down-side to the costs of "policing" or regulating of the banned substance and even the courts are calling the substance "relatively harmless".
Having put too many classmates in university to bed so drunk they could not stand erect, back in the 1960's, and having watched as alcohol abuse literally shattered the dreams and lives of dozens of individuals of otherwise high repute, and having descended from a gandmother who was a WCTU (Women's Christian Temperance Union) activist, and a mother who told her husband, prior to my arrival, "It's either the parties and the booze or the marriage!" (he chose the latter)...I am more than familiar with the control that alcohol, a legal, available and controlled substance can and does have on individuals and families.
Surely, marijuana, which by itself is either less addictive or non-addictive, by comparison, requires an in-the-face, direct response from the nation's legislators, after both a comprehensive review of the research literature and public opinion in all regions and demographics.
Connecticut is hardly a hippie commune, as we can all hear some of the most conservative among us calling those who use the banned substance. Canada would do well to examine the examples of those states whose laws have kept better pace with the social indicators, without the erosion of morality that many would and do predict.
And yet, with the social conservatives in charge in Ottawa, we need not hold our breath waiting for change in this file.

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