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Canada Moves Toward Legalizing Marijuana
A News Analysis By Terence T. Gorski (5-28-01)
Tom Cohen of the Associated Press reported on May 28, 2001 that Canada's drug control policy is slowly but clearly shifting toward decriminalizing marijuana.  This Canadian political movement is in opposition to current trends in US drug law and could influence future direction of drug policy in the United States toward a public health addiction policy that focuses upon prevention and treatment and away from a criminal justice drug policy that focuses upon punishment as a deterrent.

Canada has historically been more tolerant of marijuana than the United States and arrest statistics show the disparity in the two nation's approaches. The Canadian Center on Substance Abuse said about 25,000 people were arrested in Canada for simple possession of marijuana in 1999.  

The U.S. figure for that year under the ``zero tolerance'' policy of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was 24 times higher, exceeding 600,000, says the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Washington. The U.S. population is about eight times that of Canada's. 

Justice Minister Anne McLellan says the issue should be studied, and a new Parliament committee on drug matters will look at decriminalization. Conservative Party leader Joe Clark is urging the elimination of criminal penalties for possessing a small amount of pot.   ``It's unjust to see someone, because of one decision one night in their youth, carry the stigma - to be barred from studying medicine, law, architecture or other fields where a criminal record could present an obstacle,'' Clark said last week. 

The government has proposed expanding medicinal use of marijuana, and the Canadian Medical Association Journal recently supported full decriminalization. Canada's Supreme Court will consider a case this year that contends criminal charges for the personal use of marijuana violate constitutional rights. 

Making possession and use of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense - akin to a traffic fine- instead of a criminal violation would move Canadian policy closer to attitudes in The Netherlands and away from the United States, its neighbor and biggest trade partner.

U.S. anti-drug activists are worried that legalization of marijuana in Canada could depress prices in the United States making marijuana more available.  Legalization in Canada would also boost the arguments of American advocates for easing U.S. drug laws. 

Joseph A. Califano Jr., president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, and  a former U.S. secretary of health and human services, said increasing medical evidence on the harm caused by marijuana makes it unlikely that a change in Canadian law will affect U.S. policy. ``I don't think it means much,'' he said. 

Canada already has a legal industry for hemp - cannabis cultivated with very low amounts of the chemical that produces the high sought by marijuana smokers - while the U.S. federal government prohibits hemp production.

In April, Canadian Health Minister Allan Rock proposed expanding the medicinal use of marijuana beyond cancer sufferers now allowed to take the drug to people with AIDS and other terminal illnesses, severe arthritis, multiple sclerosis, spinal injuries and epilepsy. By contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld a federal ban on medical marijuana. 

Some U.S. states allow hemp production and medical use of marijuana, despite the federal bans, noted Bill Zimmerman, executive director of the Campaign for New Drug Policies in California. 


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