Canada Mellows Out

BY NEAL PAIS
Daily Arts Writer
Published January 24, 2002

The media has always been slow to take note of any seriously newsworthy material regarding our neighbor to the north. Chances are that will change the second the first delicate wisps of sweet purple smoke start to waft into our country. It seems that Canada, a nation known to emulate European liberality, has taken its first steps toward the decriminalization of marijuana.

Look across the pond and one will observe that cannabis possession now carries an astoundingly low degree of social penalty in the United Kingdom just weeks ago, the Home Office declared a moratorium on drug sentencing for soft drug possession. Now, Canadians want to follow Britain"s lead and radically reform the sphere of soft drug policy within their borders.

For decades, anti-drug policies across the West have been mired in conservative rhetoric and have seen little reform in the recent past. Cannabis sativa, more likely to be referred to as marijuana or pot by the casual observer, has historically been under almost as much scrutiny as harder drugs such as cocaine and LSD.

Even revelations of its potential for medical use have not changed its status as a Schedule I substance on the DEA"s list of commonly abused drugs. Politicians in this country have long had a strong disdain for personal marijuana consumption, despite the medical potential of the "drug." However, the realization that cannabis is not a harmful agent has spawned a rash of recent legalization debates in Canada.

Two years ago, the Canadian government officially decriminalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. Quickly following that reform came moves to completely remove the penalties associated with possession in small amounts.

Several liberal Canadian politicians have pointed out that the decriminalization and subsequent legalization of cannabis would result in a natural segregation between pot smokers and hard drug users.

The Canadian Bar Association, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Medical Association have all voiced their support of decriminalization. The latter organization published in its monthly journal that tar presented the only form of harm to a marijuana user. And officially, scientific studies have yet to observe any carcinogenic effects of cannabis smoking.

Widely circulated medical reports even go so far as to say that no cognitive impairment is sustained by the smoking of the plant.

Apart from the logical social benefits that would stem from the decriminalization of marijuana, the cannabis industry is indeed a lucrative one.

The province of British Columbia alone, haven for pro-cannabis reform, earns some $4 billion a year from its underground sale of marijuana. This figure alone suggests the enormous potential for further economic development in Canada. Not to mention the bolstering that the tourism industry will get.

Recent polls have shown that 47 percent of Canadian voters do in fact back complete marijuana legalization while upwards of 90 percent support marijuana used for medical purposes. However, it seems that Washington doesn"t seem to share that popular opinion calling drug legalization a "social catastrophe," President Bush has made it clear that the U.S. has no plans for the same types of marijuana reform our mellow neighbors plan to introduce.

Pro-legalization public interest lobbies, such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), remain committed to stopping the war on soft drugs, but marijuana reform in this nation still seems a long way off. "The United States is quickly becoming isolated regarding the way in which we choose to target and vilify marijuana smokers," says Keith Stroup, Executive Director of NORML.

Dana Larsen, Editor of Cannabis Culture, a British Columbia-based magazine aimed at educating people about the war on drugs, is happy to see his country"s move toward more lenient drug policy ,yet claims "Canada still has a long way to go many people think that the government is more liberal than it really is. The poison of American cannabis prohibition has been leaking into our country for years. We are getting a lot of pressure from the Bush administration not to decriminalize."

Impassioned by what he sees as an attack on responsible marijuana users, Larsen feels "the drug war is the United States government at its worst." Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) President Angelica Leone agrees: "Students need to become aware of the injustices of the drug war."

With its annual pro-cannabis celebration (Hash Bash) and a traditionally liberal atmosphere, Ann Arbor is often seen at the forefront of protest for marijuana reform policy in the United States. Many students do not hesitate to share their views on the "war on drugs." "The U.S. government attributes too many problems to marijuana when in reality, the averse effects seem limited to all who experiment with it," said LSA junior Leah Brock.

Cameron Shelley, also an LSA junior concurred, stating, "It seems so frivolous that the government goes after cannabis users so harshly, instead of focusing on drugs that are addictive or result in fatalities. I just don"t see the sense in placing such a negative stigma on a plant when government resources could be used on more pressing social issues."

An engineering student, wishing to remain anonymous also contributed his opinion: "Personally, I think this country"s fear of weed is rooted in a problem with image Canada can decriminalize marijuana because this negative image of it is not present there. I would like to see weed legalized, but I see that as highly unlikely because the U.S. has spent the past several years trying to portray users of cannabis as illegitimate members of society."

However, some students, like Kate Adrouni, another LSA junior, are not ready for decriminalization. "Marijuana should definitely be legal for medical purposes, but not as a recreational drug," she said. "Decriminalization might work in Europe, but I don"t think we have the same environment it just wouldn"t translate well. I don"t support marijuana decriminalization."

Walking down the bustling streets of downtown Montreal this summer, the tolerance that more and more Canadian police officers are said to be exercising in response to possession was obvious. Amidst the joyous atmosphere of the Montreal Jazz Festival, cannabis smoke drifted lazily over the happy crowds as small bags of weed were proffered to tourists just out of view of Montreal"s finest. No arrests were made, no fines handed out. Instead, gentle reprimands accompanied the confiscation of small amounts of cannabis.

Police officers in Toronto seemed to share their government"s move toward a fairer drug policy wishing to remain anonymous, two city cops made clear their desire to see marijuana decriminalized. "Personal possession should carry the same fine as a speeding ticket. All cops around here feel that way," they said.

With the first news of Ottawa"s decision to decriminalize, many Americans including hash-bashers from Ann Arbor will be flocking to the border. And they won"t be going there for the maple.