NEW YORK - Starting in the autumn, pharmacies in British Columbia will sell marijuana for medicinal purposes, without a prescription, under a pilot project devised by Canada's national health service. The plan follows a 2002 report by a Canadian Senate committee that found there were "clear, though not definitive" benefits for using marijuana in the treatment of chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and other ailments. Both Prime Minister Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, leader of the opposition conservatives, support the decriminalization of marijuana.
Oddly, the strongest criticism of the Canadian proposal has come from patients already using medical marijuana who think the government, which charges about $110 an ounce, supplies lousy pot. "It is of incredibly poor quality," one patient said. Another said, "It tastes like lumber." A spokesman for Health Canada promised the agency would try to offer a better grade of product.
Needless to say, this is a far cry from the situation in the United States, where marijuana remains a controlled substance, a drug that the government says has a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical uses and no safe level of use.
Under federal law it is illegal to possess any amount of marijuana anywhere in the United States. Penalties for a first marijuana offense range from probation to life without parole. Although 11 states have decriminalized marijuana, most still have tough laws against the drug. In Louisiana, selling one ounce can lead to a 20-year prison sentence. In Washington State, supplying any amount of marijuana brings a recommended prison sentence of five years.
About 700,000 people were arrested in the United States for violating marijuana laws in 2002 - more than were arrested for heroin or cocaine. Almost 90 percent of these marijuana arrests were for possession, a crime that in most cases is a misdemeanor. But even a misdemeanor conviction can easily lead to time in jail, the suspension of a driver's license, the loss of a job. In many states possession of an ounce is a felony.
Those convicted of a marijuana felony, even if they are disabled, can be prohibited from receiving federal welfare payments or food stamps. Convicted murderers and rapists, however, are still eligible for those benefits.
The Bush administration has escalated the war on marijuana, raiding clinics that offer medical marijuana. Its Office of National Drug Control Policy says, "Marijuana is addictive. Marijuana and violence are linked ... no drug matches the threat posed by marijuana." This tough new stand has generated little protest in Congress.
Even though the war on marijuana was begun by President Ronald Reagan in 1982, it has always received strong bipartisan support. Some of the toughest drug war legislation has been backed by liberals, and the number of annual marijuana arrests more than doubled during the Clinton years. In fact, some of the strongest opposition to the arrest and imprisonment of marijuana users has come from conservatives.
This year the White House's national anti-drug media campaign will spend $170 million, working closely with the nonprofit Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The idea of a "drug-free America" may seem appealing. But it's hard to believe that anyone seriously hopes to achieve that goal in a nation where antidepressants are prescribed to cure shyness, and the pharmaceutical industry aggressively promotes pills to help middle-aged men have sex.
Clearly, some recreational drugs are thought to be all right. Thus it isn't surprising that the Partnership for a Drug-Free America originally received much of its financing from cigarette, alcohol and pharmaceutical companies like Hoffmann-La Roche, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and Anheuser-Busch.
More than 16,000 Americans die every year after taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen. No one in Congress, however, has called for an all-out war on Advil.
Perhaps the most dangerous drug widely consumed in the United States is the one that I use three or four times a week: alcohol. It is literally poisonous; you can die after drinking too much. It is directly linked to about half the violent crime in the United States, two-thirds of suicides and two-thirds of domestic abuse cases.
And the level of alcohol use among the young far exceeds the use of marijuana. According to the Justice Department, American children age 11 to 13 are four times as likely to drink alcohol than to smoke pot.
None of this should play down the seriousness of marijuana use. It is a powerful, mind-altering drug. It should not be smoked by young people, schizophrenics, pregnant women and people with heart conditions. But it is remarkably nontoxic. In more than 5,000 years of recorded use, there is no verified case of anybody dying of an overdose. Indeed, no fatal dose has ever been established.
Over the past two decades billions of dollars have been spent fighting the war on marijuana, millions of Americans have been arrested and tens of thousands have been imprisoned. Has it been worth it? According to the government's National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, in 1982 about 54 percent of Americans 18 to 25 had smoked marijuana. In 2002 the proportion was ... about 54 percent.
We Americans seem to pay no attention to what other nations d9. Spain, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands and Belgium have decriminalized marijuana. Britain has reduced the penalty for having small amounts. Legislation is pending in Canada to decriminalize possession of about half an ounce. (The Bush administration is applying pressure on the Canadian government to block that bill.) In Ohio, possession of up to three ounces has been decriminalized for years - and yet liberal marijuana laws have not transformed Ohio into a hippy-dippy paradise; conservative Republican governors have been running the state since 1991.
Here's an idea: People who smoke too much marijuana should be treated the same way as people who drink too much alcohol. They need help, not the threat of arrest, imprisonment and unemployment.
More important, denying a relatively safe, potentially useful medicine to patients is irrational and cruel. In 1972 a commission appointed by President Richard Nixon concluded that marijuana should be decriminalized in the United States. The commission's aim was not to encourage the use of marijuana, but to "demythologize" it. Although Nixon rejected the commission's findings, they remain no less valid today.
The 2002 Canadian Senate committee agreed, reporting: "For the vast majority of recreational users, cannabis use presents no harmful consequences for physical, psychological or social well-being in either the short or long term."
The current war on marijuana is a monumental waste of money and a source of pointless misery. America's drug warriors, much like its marijuana smokers, seem under the spell of a powerful intoxicant. They are not thinking clearly.
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