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Canada on the brink of decriminalizing – apparently not

By Hempology | August 28, 2007

Toronto Star, ON
25 Aug 2007
Lynda Hurst


Just As Canadians Are Embracing Pot As Never Before, the Government Plans a New War on Drugs.  the Move Is Fitting, Given This Country’s Ambivalent Relationship With Weed Over the Decades

In announcing an upcoming federal anti-drug campaign, Health Minister Tony Clement stated the obvious this week.

“The messages young people have received during the past several years have been confusing and conflicting to say the least.”

Clement specifically mentioned the on-off debate on marijuana: It “has left an entire generation confused over whether or not pot is legal.” He felt it necessary to remind his audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, it is not.”

The young aren’t the only ones who appear confused. 

For the past three decades, Ottawa has moved back and forth on the pros and cons of decriminalizing marijuana possession ( not legalizing the drug ).

Canadians have long since made up their own minds on cannabis, weed, grass, pot, or whatever the name du jour.  A clear majority has told pollsters time and again that the penalties for possession are too harsh.

For a lot of Canadians, the debate is over: They like pot, they smoke it.

In fact, Canadians aged between 15 and 64 have the highest rate of regular consumption in the industrialized world, at 16.8 per cent, according to a United Nations report released last month.

It’s a large part of youth culture in Canada, says Osgoode Hall law professor Alan Young.  “But more important, 50 per cent of users are over age 30.  So it’s really in all age groups, all class groups, which Ottawa doesn’t realize or ignores.”

Canada is also up there on the number of citizens walking around with criminal records because at some point, likely in the 1960s or ’70s, they were arrested for possession.  There are more than 600,000 of them.

“This number represents teachers, lawyers, doctors and parents who make daily contributions to our society and yet are labelled as unsavoury when they cross the border,” says Senator Larry Campbell, former Vancouver mayor.

The federal Conservatives have earmarked $64 million for the new anti-drug strategy.  Details and timing are still to be announced.

“But it’s going to be poisonous because it will be ideological,” predicts Ottawa lawyer Eugene Oscapella, who specializes in drug policy.

He says the UN also reported that cannabis consumption in the Netherlands, where possession has long been decriminalized, is only 6.1 per cent.  “This shows that criminal law does not prevent people from using marijuana, nor does legalization make people use it.”

Already, the sighs have started.  Here we go again.

“Two or three times there has been rigorous debate in favour of decriminalizing,” says Alan Young.  “Promises were made, then reversed.”

Indeed, it was back in 1973 that the LeDain Commission called for an end to charges for simple possession, not immediately but in the near future.  It also noted that “no evidence that scientific judgment” had played a role in criminalizing it in the first place.

Marijuana was, in fact, a virtually unknown drug when it was made illegal in 1923 without debate in Parliament and as a seemingly ad hoc add-on to the Opium and Drug Act.

It’s believed the influencing factor was a 1922 book by Canada’s first female magistrate, the early feminist but moral conservative, Emily Murphy.  The Black Candle relied heavily on U.S.  information on the “dangerous and evil effects” of marijuana, saying it turned users into “raving maniacs …  liable to kill or indulge in violence.”

The first conviction for possession didn’t, however, occur until 14 years later when a “reefer madness” campaign was in full sway in the U.S.  and spilling into Canada.  Still, until the early 1960s, there were fewer than 100 arrests a year.

That’s when pot started being used by the middle-class counter-culture.  By the start of the ’70s, there were 10,000 arrests annually.  By 2,000, there were 30,000.

In 2002, two parliamentary committees heard from a wide array of experts and lobbyists.

The Commons committee concluded that penalties for simple possession were disproportionately harsh; the Senate committee stated that marijuana was not a gateway to harder drugs.

“Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol,” it said, “and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public health issue.”

In 2003, the Liberal government introduced a bill to decriminalize possession of less than 15 grams, making it subject to a fine but no criminal record.

The move caused immediate criticism in Washington.  It warned Ottawa that if the bill passed, Canadians would pay for it at the border with increased security checks and lengthy delays.

“There’s the hypocrisy of the situation,” says Oscapella, noting there are 12 American states where possession of under one ounce ( 28.45 grams ) carries only a fine, 11 of which adopted the policy in the mid-1970s.

In 2004, Conservative leader Stephen Harper said he opposed decriminalization but that “we can look at fines rather than jail terms for possession under five grams.” When the Tories came to power in two years later, however, they killed the Liberal bill.

“Are they kowtowing to the U.S.? Almost certainly,” says Oscapella.

Meanwhile, a series of judges has continued to rule that Canada’s possession laws are no longer valid.  Last month, an Ontario Court judge in Toronto acquitted a man charged with possessing 3.5 grams after he successfully argued the law was unconstitutional due to ambiguity on the use of medical marijuana.

Confusion was indeed sown in 2001 when Canada became the first country in the world to allow cannabis for medicinal use.  Some 4,000 Canadians are now authorized to grow and/or possess the drug for alleviation of pain and other medical symptoms.  But Ottawa didn’t change the laws on marijuana to accommodate the policy — and anyone else’s use.

According to Dr.  Lester Grinspoon, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and leading researcher, ultimately “medical uses are going to be the undoing of prohibition.”

Australia, and several European countries, including Britain, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, have decriminalized personal use in recent years.  Canada was on the brink, again, says Alan Young.

“But this situation is like pushing a rock to the top of the hill only to have it roll down again.”

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