ft~ 9da7a whatever you call it, it's still a crime to smoke it. Is it time to relax the country's drug laws? Many Canadians say yes.


EMILY MURPHY WAS THE FIRST TO SOUND the alarm. In 1922, the Edmonton magistrate and suffragette was railing against the scourge of drugs. Her sensationalist best-selling book, The Black Candle, let loose on the evils of such substances as opium, heroin and “marahuana.” Few Canadians had heard of marijuana at the time, fewer still had tried it. Murphy, already famous and popular for her “Janey Canuck” books of personal observations, made certain their initial impression would be indelible. Smokers, she quoted a police chief as saying, “become raving maniacs and are liable to kill or indulge in any form of violence.” Once addicted, she added, there were only three ways out—“insanity ... death ... abandonment”.

Ludicrous, certainly. The world knows better now. But at the time, it was enough to convince Parliament to ban cannabis—

marijuana and the more potent variant, hashish—the following year. And nearly 80 years later, Canadians are still living through the bad trip.

On the one hand, prohibition has handed criminal organizations, including Quebec’s notorious biker gangs, a monopoly on perhaps the world’s most robust market. Who else could keep a steady stream of illicit stash flowing to the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who toke regularly, occasionally or, as some politicians euphemistically have it, “experimentally”? On the other, Canada, like other nations, has been forced to divert billions of dollars and countless police man-hours in a vain attempt to staunch the supply. Meanwhile, lives have been disrupted, thousands imprisoned and many more otherwise law-abiding citizens marked with criminal records. Since 1923, about 800,000 Canadians have been charged with marijuana offences, in most cases simple possession. And despite today’s more permissive attitude, police are still hauling people who smoke, sell or grow the weed before the courts—31,503 in 1999, the most recent year on record, two-thirds of them for possession.

Dope. Grass. Pot. Ganja. Mary Jane. Weed. Whatever you call

it, does it make sense to treat its users like common criminals? Not to Eugene Oscapella, a lawyer and a founder of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy. Oscapella has never tried marijuana but still advocates its legalization under certain guidelines. Much like North America’s brief and disastrous prohibition of alcohol, criminalizing marijuana has reaped a noxious harvest, he says. A boon for outlaws, it has tied up police and court resources, taught teenagers to disrespect the law—and utterly failed to dissuade people from using the drug. In other words, not only has the medicine been worse than the disease, it hasn’t even worked.

It gets more surreal, adds Oscapella. The chief rationale for defending the cannabis law is protecting youth. But by ensuring the only supply for marijuana is from the same people who also sell crack cocaine and heroin, the law is actually making it more likely they will get access to harder, seriously harmful drugs. The analogy with booze in contemporary society is instructive. “Kids still get access to alcohol, as they do to pot,” Oscapella notes. “But is there an organized international cartel with machine-guns, corrupting governments, killing people, selling alcohol to kids in high schools? No, because there’s no money in it.”

Some on the front lines have come to similar conclusions. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the RCMP and the Canadian Medical Association Journal have, to varying degrees, said they would support decriminalizing possession for personal

use, which would leave the drug on the prohibited list but remove the chance of saddling smokers with a criminal record. At the same time, the notion of full legalization with regulation—treating the drug pretty much like alcohol and tobacco—is gaining ground. In a May survey, University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby found 47 per cent of Canadians in favour of legalization. That’s up from 31 per cent in 1995 and 26 per cent in 1975. One reason for the mellowing public attitude, says Oscapella, is fatigue with the futile war on drugs captured by such films as the Oscar-winning Ï Traffic. He also cites the personal experience of I boomers smoking pot in their youth, and the Canadian government’s 1999 decision to allow the chronically ill to smoke the drug to relieve pain and stimulate appetite. Last week, Health Canada approved a $235,000 grant to the McGill Pain Centre to conduct a yearlong study on the drug’s potential as a painkiller.

Whatever the reason, even politicians now seem willing to look at marijuana in a new light. Both the Senate and the House of Commons have convened committees to examine Canada’s drug laws—in the Upper Chamber’s case, the laws on cannabis in particular. Both are expected to report next year. Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark and Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day, among others, now say they are prepared to consider decriminalizing possession of small quantities of cannabis. Although Prime Minister Jean Chretien says the government has no plans to soften the law at this time, in 1980, as justice minister, he had pledged to make simple possession a noncriminal offence. “For reasons I don’t understand, I definitely think there’s a momentum towards changing the law,” Pierre Claude Nolin, who is chairing the Senate committee, told Macleans. “The arguments for prohibition that were so effective 30 years ago are much weaker now.”

HEN NOLIN TALKS ABOUT 30 YEARS AGO, he’s referring to the failure of Canada’s 1970 LeDain Commission to sway public opinion. It found no compelling scientific evidence that cannabis was seriously harmful, or that it was addictive. While the report led to sporadic calls for marijuana possession to be treated much like a speeding ticket, nothing happened. Put it down to political inertia or lack of courage. But the scientific evidence was sketchy at best, since few had conducted the tests that would yield a conclusive answer. In the end, says Nolin, that proved decisive.

Dr. Harold Kalant argues the jury on marijuana’s harmful effects is still out. Kalant, professor emeritus of pharmacology at the University of Toronto, says the research that does exist suggests regular, heavy use of cannabis produces inflammation in the lining of the respiratory system, including pre-cancerous conditions. It may be true, as pot’s defenders claim, that there are no verifiable deaths from marijuana smoking, but there are also relatively few smokers and still fewer heavy users.

Polls say only about seven per cent of adult Canadians have used the drug in the past year, and Kalant estimates less than five per cent of those could be characterized as regular, heavy users— smoking perhaps half-a-dozen joints a day. Legalize, and not only will the number of users increase, but also frequency of use—resulting, he argues, in an outbreak of lung cancer that would rival

that associated with tobacco. Then there are the intoxicating, disorienting effects, which, some studies show, have been associated with impairment and memory loss. Even potheads will generally admit that driving a car is not advisable under the drugs spell.

Kalant, however, is very much in the minority of current scientific thinking. For one thing, says Dr. John Morgan, a New York-based pharmacologist and co-author of the 1997 book Marijuana Myths: Marijuana Facts, a succession of anti-drug U.S. governments have laboured over the years to make the case against marijuana, to no avail. Cannabis is not a major cancer risk for the simple reason that the drug does not lend itself to heavy continual use, as does tobacco, he says. Nor do pot smokers appear to develop emphysema, the serious respiratory disease common among tobacco smokers. “Its the dose that makes the poison,” says Morgan, “and cannabis smokers never come close to inhaling the amount of smoke that tobacco smokers do.”

The medicinal properties of cannabis are also hotly debated.

But Health Minister Allan Rock believes there is enough anecdotal evidence to justify Canadas experiment with permitting AIDS, cancer and chronically ill patients to use the drug. Adherents claim smoking relieves pain, stimulates appetite for those on nauseating medication, and lessens eye pressure caused by glaucoma. Since June, 1999, Health Canada has licensed patients meeting specific requirements to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. Now, regulations that went into effect this week give permission to approved patients, on doctors’ recommendation, to grow sufficient quantities of marijuana for personal use.

Those who qualify should be able to avoid police harassment by using the photo-ID cards the government will issue. Rock admits the regulations still contain a catch-22—there is no legal method of obtaining marijuana seeds in Canada—but says he is willing to live with the inconsistency (page 26). In any case, he adds, the government has hired Brent Zetti at Prairie Plant Systems Inc. of Saskatoon to grow sufficiënt quantities of marijuana in an underground mine near Flin Flon, Man., to begin supplying patients in a government clinical trial with a legal source of

standardized dope by the end of this year. or makes criminals of otherwise law-abiding citizens. Most Cana-

One positive effect of marijuana on which almost everyone dians have never tried pot in their lives and 93 per cent don’t agrees is that it relaxes people. That’s a good thing in a recreational smoke it now, so the law must be doing something right, he says.

drug, especially when you consider the alternative. While heavy drinking has been associated with unruly, boorish behaviour, pot smokers report feeling contented, even euphoric. “You feel good and relaxed,” says Mike, 56, a technician with a Victoria dot-com company and father of three who smokes three or four joints a day. Ottawa store owner Mike Foster, 47, a former civil servant, says he prefers pot to alcohol. “The thing is, it helps you unwind like having a drink, but it doesn’t change your personality,” he says. “You get more introspective.” Rock agrees. Remarking on the Canada Day celebrations in Edmonton that degenerated into a drunken riot, he says he had one instinctive thought: “That wouldn’t have happened if they’d been smoking pot.”

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O WHAT’S THE WORST THAT CAN HAPPEN IF Canada takes the next step by decriminalizing—or even legalizing—cannabis use? The Canadian Police Associa| tion presented the case against to the Senate committee on May 28. It can best be described as the Pandora’s box theory—lift the lid and all sorts of evils will be unleashed on society. The association, which represents 30,000 frontline officers, warns of the serious harmful effects of the drug. Furthermore, Canada will send a signal to youth that drug use is acceptable. Cannabis use will soar, as will health-care costs and other social ills, such as driving while high. More importantly, the cops argue, marijuana is a “gateway drug” that will facilitate the use of other, even more harmful substances, such as cocaine and heroin. “As soon as you take away the deterrent effect, the usage is going to skyrocket,” maintains David Griffin, the association’s executive officer. Griffin also disputes claims that the current law is ineffective,

Ottawa would face stiff resistance if it decided to move on marijuana

‘They become raving maniacs’

Canadian legislation controlling the use of narcotics followed quickly on the publication In 1922 of The Black Candle, a lurid account of drug use by Edmonton magistrate Emily Murphy. Later renowned as the prime mover of the Famous Five suffragettes who successfully campaigned for the vote for Canadian women, Murphy wrote regularly in the pages of Maclean’s about the evils of the drug trade. Extracts from the book’s wildly overblown chapter on marijuana-a drug that the federal government would make illegal in 1923:

arahuana is known by chemists and physicians as Cannibis Indica, and more commonly as Indian hemp. Sometimes it is called hasheesh or hashish. Eminent medical doctors in India, principally at Calcutta, have made experiments with Cannibis Indica and have discovered that it induces symptoms of catalepsy or even of trance.

The hemp resin for smoking and chewing come in three forms-chang, ganja and charas. This Indian hemp is used chiefly in Asia Minor, India, Persia and Egypt, but is being increasingly used on this continent, particularly by the Mexicans, who smuggle it into the United States.

Charles A. Jones, the Chief of Police for Los Angeles, said in a recent letter that hashish grows wild in Mexico but to raise this shrub in California constitutes a violation of the State Narcotic law. He says, “Persons using this narcotic smoke the dried leaves of the plant, which has the effect of driving them completely insane. The addict loses all sense of moral responsibility. Addicts to this drug, while under its influence, are immune to pain, and could be severely injured without having any realization of their condition. While in this condition they become raving maniacs and are liable to kill or indulge in any form of violence, using the most

savage methods of cruelty without, as said before, any sense of moral responsibility.

"When coming from under the influence of this narcotic, these victims present the most horrible condition imaginable. They are dispossessed of their natural and normal will power, and their mentality is that of idiots. If this drug is indulged in to any great extent, it ends in the untimely death of its addict.”

Dr. Warnock in The Journal of Mental Sciences for January, 1903, describes the hasheesh user in the following words: “They are good-for-nothing lazy fellows who live by begging or stealing, and pester their relations for money to buy the hasheesh, often assaulting them when they refuse the demands. The moral degradation of these cases is their most salient symptom; loss of social position, shamelessness, addiction to lying and theft, and a loose, irregular life makes them a curse to their families.”

Compare that to legal drugs like tobacco, which is used by about 24 per cent of adults, or alcohol, with a usage rate approaching 80 per cent. Griffin adds that while thousands continue to be charged with marijuana possession, the vast majority are apprehended in the commission of other offences. “We don’t search out people for having small quantities of marijuana,” he says. “People don’t go to jail for minor possession, they are usually found holding when we catch them committing other crimes.”

Certainly, no one knows for sure what would happen if the restraints were loosened. But if the Netherlands is any indication, the answer may be not much. Since the 1970s, Holland has served as the testing ground for decriminalization of marijuana and hashish. While cannabis is still legally prohibited, the government has maintained a policy of looking the other way on possession. The result has been that about 1,200 so-called coffee shops have sprung up throughout the country—especially Amsterdam—where customers can buy up to five grams of weed, take it with them, or smoke on the premises while enjoying a snack.

The laissez-faire policy has not been totally problem-free. The coffee shops attract thousands of “tourists” from neighbouring France and Germany, straining relations between the nations. Locally, the shops have also brought complaints from nearby residents. As a result, the government in the past few years reduced the number of coffee shops and the amount of cannabis an individual can purchase at a time.

But there’s no sign of the grim outcomes that Griffin predicts. After an initial spurt, cannabis use in Holland has levelled off to approximately that in other European countries, about the same

Should marijuana be decriminalized?

as in Canada and lower than in the United States. The Dutch experience also seems to debunk the gateway-drug theory, as usage of harder drugs is lower than for most of its neighbours. The notion that a nation’s drug policy dictates use patterns is simply bunk, says Peter Cohen, director of the Centre for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam. “A lot of factors play a role in establishing drug use—things like fashion, economic situation, number of urban areas,” he says. “Drug policy is just one of them and probably not a very important one.”

Still, Ottawa would face stiff resistance if it decides to move on marijuana, not all of it internal. The United States remains staunchly opposed to any relaxation of marijuana laws. Congressmen like Lamar Smith of Texas have warned Canada about its leaky border that allows for the transshipment of drugs and B.C.-grown grass. Also, the two countries co-operate closely on drug interdiction. That wouldn’t necessarily stay Canada’s hand, says Justice Minister Anne McLellan, but she adds: “If you’re going to be a responsible member of a global community, you need to understand the impact of your domestic decisions on other countries.”

For advocates of decriminalization or legalization, hope now rests on continuing high levels of public support for relaxing the law and on the parliamentary committees reviewing Canada’s policies. Oscapella says it would take courage for the Liberal government to break away from the American-driven war on drugs. “But why not try it?” he asks. “It couldn’t be worse than we have now, and if it doesn’t work, well, no decision is irreversible.” That may sound rational to many, but as Emily Murphy proved eight decades ago, marijuana and logic have rarely mixed. Eul