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Legalize and Regulate Cannabis, Canadian Senate Committee Says

Thursday, 05 September 2002

Special Report Finds Pot To Be Less Harmful Than Alcohol Or Tobacco;
Calls For Licensed Distribution Of Marijuana For Recreational And Medical Purposes

Ottawa, Ontario:  Members of a special Senate committee unanimously urged Parliament to amend federal law to allow for the regulated use, possession and distribution of marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes, in a 600-page report released yesterday by the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs.

"Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public health issue," said Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, who oversaw the Committee's two-year inquiry.  "Whether or not an individual uses marijuana should be a personal choice that is not subject to criminal penalties.  [Therefore,] we have come to the conclusion that, as a drug, it should be regulated by the state much as we do for wine and beer, hence our preference for legalization over decriminalization."

Several previous government-appointed committees, including the U.S. National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (aka The Shafer Commission) and the Canadian Government Commission of Inquiry Into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs (aka The Le Dain Commission), have recommended decriminalizing marijuana - a policy whereby criminal penalties on the use and possession of pot are eliminated, but distributing the drug remains illegal.  However, Canada's Special Senate Committee is one of the first government-appointed commissions to recommend legalizing marijuana outright.

"In our opinion, Canadian society is ready for a responsible policy of cannabis regulation," their report concludes.  "[We therefore] recommend that the Government of Canada amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to create a criminal exemption scheme, under which the production and sale of cannabis would be licensed ... to permit persons over the age of 16 to procure cannabis and its derivatives at duly licensed distribution centers." 

The Committee calls on Parliament to enact a similar exemption on the production of marijuana for personal use, as well as provide amnesty for any person convicted of pot possession under current or past legislation.  Over 50 percent of all Canadian drug violations involve marijuana possession, the Committee found.  Among the general population, 30 percent of Canadians have used marijuana in their lifetime, and approximately 50 percent of high school students admit to having used it within the past year. 

"A look at trends in cannabis use, both among adults and young people, forces us to admit that current policies are ineffective," the report concluded.

Regarding the use and regulation of marijuana for medicinal purposes, the Committee determined that there are "clear therapeutic benefits" of inhaled cannabis in the treatment of various conditions - including chronic pain and multiple sclerosis - and recommended Health Canada "provide new rules regarding eligibility, production and distribution" of medical pot.  Although Canada legalized the use and cultivation of medicinal marijuana to qualified patients last year, the government has since backtracked on its promise to establish a regulated, medicinal pot distribution system.

Other findings by the Committee include:

    Marijuana is not a gateway to the use of hard drugs.  "Cannabis itself is not a cause of other drug use.  In this sense, we reject the gateway theory."

    Marijuana use does not lead to the commission of crime.  "Cannabis itself is not a cause of delinquency and crime; and cannabis is not a cause of violence."

    Marijuana users are unlikely to become dependent.  "Most users are not at-risk users ... and most experimenters stop using cannabis.  ... Heavy use of cannabis can result in dependence requiring treatment; however, dependence caused by cannabis is less severe and less frequent than dependence on other psychotropic substances, including alcohol and tobacco."

    Marijuana use has little impact on driving.  "Cannabis alone, particularly in low doses, has little effect on the skills involved in automobile driving.  Cannabis leads to a more cautious style of driving.  [Cannabis does have] a negative impact on decision time and trajectory [however] this in itself does not mean that drivers under the influence of cannabis represent a traffic safety risk."

    Liberalizing marijuana laws is unlikely to lead to increased marijuana use.  "Data from other countries ... indicate that countries ... which have put in place a more liberal approach have not seen their long-term levels of cannabis use rise.  ... We have concluded that public policy itself has little effect on cannabis use trends and that other more complex and poorly understood factors play a greater role in explaining the variations."

    Marijuana prohibition poses a greater risk to health than marijuana use.  "We believe ... that the continued prohibition of cannabis jeopardizes the health and well-being of Canadians much more than does the substance itself or the regulated marketing of the substance.  In addition, we believe that the continued criminalization of cannabis undermines the fundamental values set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

A complete summary of the report, entitled "Cannabis: Our Position For A Canadian Public Policy," is available online at: http://www.parl.gc.ca/illegal-drugs.asp

For more information, please contact either Keith Stroup or Paul Armentano of NORML at (202) 483-5500. A summary of previous federally commissioned reports is available at: http://www.norml.org/index.cfm?Group_ID=3382





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