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March 11, 2005 - The Vancouver Sun (US)

Editorial: Canada Could Be A World Leader In Smarter Drug Strategies

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For the past three days, we have examined how the federal government's prohibitionist approach to dealing with marijuana has utterly failed to reduce the supply of, or demand for, the drug. Cannabis use appears to be associated with cultural and social factors, rather than with the harshness of the laws or the degree of their enforcement.

Nevertheless, successive governments have spent billions of dollars enforcing the law, and organized crime has reaped billions of dollars in profits from trade in marijuana and other illicit drugs. Marijuana laws have made criminals out of pot smokers, and have allowed organized crime, and its attendant violence, to flourish.

It was for these reasons that the LeDain Commission recommended 30 years ago that Canada end the legal prohibition on marijuana possession. And it was for these reasons that the Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs, in the most comprehensive report on marijuana since LeDain, recommended in 2002 that trade in marijuana be legalized and regulated.

Finally, it was for these reasons that in 1998, dignitaries from Europe, Latin America, Canada and the United States sent a letter to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan declaring that the war on drugs, rather than than drug use, has caused most of the social, political, legal and moral problems associated with illicit drugs.

Despite the abundant evidence about the benefits of the legalization and regulation of marijuana-in addition to weakening (though not eliminating) organized crime, regulation would allow governments to control the strength and purity of marijuana, and would allow for coherent programs aimed at prevention or responsible use-no country in the world has proceeded with legalization.

(De facto legalization exists in the Netherlands, but marijuana laws remain on the books and those trading in large amounts of the drug remain subject to prosecution, which ensures the continued existence of a criminal underground there.)

Countries have failed to consider legalization for a number of reasons: The U.S. has exerted enormous pressure on the world to maintain the war on drugs, and it often ties foreign aid to a country's commitment to prosecuting that war. Even countries that rely only on U.S. trade, not aid -- such as Canada-face ferocious opposition from the U.S. anytime legalization, or even decriminalization, is discussed.

If we needed any more evidence on this score, we got it in spades on Wednesday. U.S. drug czar John Walters linked the increasing number of American teenagers seeking addiction treatment with Canadian pot exports.

In addition, most Western nations are signatories to a number of international conventions that require them to maintain legal proscriptions against trade in marijuana. Not surprisingly, the U.S. played a pivotal role in the promulgation of these conventions.

Despite the intransigence of the U.S. and the existence of international protocols against marijuana legalization, many countries recognize the folly of the war on drugs, and are, therefore, open to discussing legalization and regulation. Canada is particularly well suited to promoting such discussions.

After all, the Canadian justice system is admired throughout the world, and Canada has already taken some novel approaches to deal with drug abuse. In addition to the possible decriminalization of marijuana through the new bill before Parliament, Vancouver is host to a supervised-injection site for heroin addicts, and several Canadian cities, including Vancouver, are participating in the North American Opiate Medication Initiative, which is studying the effects of prescribing heroin to hardcore addicts.

Both the supervised-injection site and the NAOMI trials are the subjects of scientific studies, and the government should also assess the impact of marijuana decriminalization should that become a reality. By developing a national office on drug policy and a national strategy on drugs, Canada could gather and disseminate the effects of these novel approaches to drug use.

In concert with the many European nations that are taking similar steps, Canada could take a leading role in prompting discussion about alternatives to marijuana prohibition.

The U.S. might well remain intransigent, but as the international community harnesses and distributes more and more evidence about the harm caused by the war on marijuana, some nations might feel empowered to consider marijuana legalization and regulation on a trial basis. Should such trials prove successful, other countries would likely follow.

All of this must begin, though, with a commitment from Ottawa to develop a national drug strategy, and to communicate the results of its work to the world. The world is not losing the war on marijuana: It's a war we've already lost. Canada can help to unify the globe in its efforts to minimize the harms caused not only by drugs, but by drug laws.

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