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Source: Alberta Report
Pubdate: Tue, 26 Aug 1997
Author: Davis Sheremata

Peace Looms In The War On Pot

The 74 year old 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 26 year old. "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 conservative 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 socially 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 it."

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 effects.

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 basement.

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 18 year old 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 than 580,000 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.

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Last Modified:Wednesday, 26-Feb-2003 14:34:05 PST