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April 7, 2005 - NOW Magazine (CN)

And Marijuana For All

Moral Panic Over Grow Ops Ignores Fact That More Of Us Puff Than Play Hockey

By Alan Young

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

I am becoming embarrassed by the endless pot debate in Canada. Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan recently stated that marijuana smokers are stupid (Was this her way of saying she smokes the herb?), but the true imbecility lies in the irresolute and confused response of our government to a no-brainer issue of public policy.

Officials are trying to generate a new moral panic over grow ops. Citing a litany of Biblical plagues like fire, mould and child neglect, police and politicians claim that indoor marijuana-growing is turning our communities into living hells.

With shameful audacity, there was even an attempt to link last month's killing of four RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe, Alberta, to the cultivation of marijuana. This week, the police services board will consider a report from Toronto police calling for the establishment of a special "marijuana grow team to deal with this problem."

Scarborough politicians have started going door to door like meddlesome vigilantes to snoop around for grow ops. At a town hall meeting last week, one councillor extolled the virtue of being "nosy" and provided this sage advice: "Don't be nice to your neighbour." I guess the marijuana grower is the 21st-century communist, posing such a grave threat to national security that the situation warrants turning neighbours into spies and informants.

From my perspective, the marijuana issue is a no-brainer. There are probably more Canadians who smoke pot than play hockey. People have been doing this for more than 10,000 years.

No one has ever died from pot, while a number of approved pharmaceuticals have been pulled off the market this year for causing cardiac arrest or suicidal ideation. Growing pot is perfectly safe, but our harsh, prohibitionist approach creates an unregulated black market in which there is little incentive to comply with safety code standards.

Every moral panic is built on a few real tragedies. There have been grow op fires, and I guess some homes are overrun with mould. Some people have bad experiences smoking pot. But the occasional tragedy does not constitute a social problem, and if the prohibitionists were right, one would expect to find problems of epidemic proportions when there are millions of users and thousands of grow rooms in this great country.

I believe there are six incontrovertible reasons why we should put the tiresome marijuana debate to rest once and for all by truly giving Canadians the liberty to grow and use the marijuana plant for personal use, whether recreational or medical.

First, it is a plant. Criminal law should be reserved for serious predatory conduct, and only in the world of science-fiction can a plant become a predator.

Second, since the 1894 Indian Hemp Commission, virtually every royal commission and governmental committee, internationally and in Canada, has recommended that marijuana use be decriminalized. Some have even called for outright legalization. It is an affront to democracy to continuously spend taxpayers' money on comprehensive and informed reports that are ignored for no apparent reason.

Third, most of Europe and Australia have decriminalized marijuana use, and the liberalization of the law in these countries has not wreaked social havoc. In fact, consumption rates in decriminalized jurisdictions are significantly lower than in the penal colonies of Canada and the United States.

Fourth, the use of marijuana poses few societal dangers. It is not a criminogenic substance. For most people, marijuana provides a form of deep relaxation and sensory enhancement, and it does not have the unpredictable, disinhibiting capacity of alcohol. No one is getting mugged by Cheech and Chong, and contrary to the false alarms sounded by public officials, marijuana is not significantly responsible for vehicular carnage.

A drug can only possess criminogenic potential if it is a disinihibitor like alcohol or if it has addictive potential. There is little evidence that marijuana is addictive, though many chronic users experience a psychological dependency like that of the compulsive jogger who continues a daily exercise regimen despite failing knees.

Fifth, marijuana is relatively harmless for the user. Admittedly, smoking has some pulmonary risks, but we don't throw junk food makers and their consumer-victims into jail despite the enormous burden these junkies place on the health care system. Criminal law is not the remedy for gastrointestinal distress, nor is it a rational solution to curbing chronic bronchial inflammation. The solemnity and majesty of the criminal law is trivialized when it's used to prevent Canadians from becoming a nation of coughers and wheezers.

Of course, every month we are bombarded by media reports of some new study linking pot to hemorrhoids or some other health risk. More often than not, the study is reporting inconclusive findings from overdosing rats and monkeys, or is a methodologically flawed experiment commissioned by the state.

Marijuana activists and users like myself are accused of disregarding mounting evidence of the ravages of marijuana, but we've heard the doom and gloom before. Even though marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the world, there is no epidemiological evidence showing increased morbidity or mortality among the toking population. But their failure to prove that the evils attributed to marijuana are anything more than speculative just compels the state and its scientist handmaidens to use science as a tool for propaganda.

My final reason for denouncing the use of criminal law to manufacture cannabis criminals is that the majority of Canadians do not support criminalization of pot use. Democracy is an illusion when the state can maintain a criminal prohibition on an activity enjoyed by 3 million Canadians and tolerated by an overwhelming majority.

Even if marijuana use and production entailed more significant harm, this would not necessarily warrant state intrusion into our private choices. Nothing in this world is perfectly harmless.

Even flush toilets and articles of clothing can wreak havoc. Studies show that 40,000 Americans injure themselves on their toilet seats every year, and 100,000 are injured by their clothing annually, yet no one has tried to demonize Sir Thomas Crapper or outlaw zippers. Young Canadians have been paralyzed by cross-checks administered in the course of hockey games. We accept and tolerate these risks because we believe there is social utility in having flush toilets, clothing and competitive sports.

Yet when it comes to marijuana, we seem unwilling to tolerate any level of risk, even though credible pharmacologists conclude that the moderate use of marijuana causes no harm and that any suspected harm will only be found among chronic daily users. Less than 5 per cent of users are chronic.

Most people believe that Canada has stalled on the path of law reform, overwhelmed by the stench of American criminal justice policy. Our government is poised to decriminalize marijuana use, yet its spokespeople continue to demonize the plant by suggesting that a Pandora's box of unknowable harm will come about from a few tokes. The government's message is so mixed, it can only serve as a catalyst for inaction and confusion.

But I think our confusion has more to do with our moral ambivalence about hedonism and the alteration of consciousness. North Americans like to see their vices on the silver screen, not in real life, and we like to leave consciousness-expanding experiments to great thinkers like Aldous Huxley. The ordinary person is condemned to a life of sobriety except for the joys and sorrows of alcohol inebriation.

We have wavered on repealing a bad law because our culture doesn't believe there is social utility or value in drug experimentation and alteration of consciousness. We cling to the notion that non-medical drug use is always a degenerate and self-indulgent waste of time. State officials continue to construct false alarms of harm and danger in order to mask their real fear that drug use may potentially foster critical thought and alternative visions of reality.

Experimentation with pot will not lead most people to a dramatic change of consciousness and character, but like most illicit drugs, the temporary alteration of perception may nourish the capacity for critical thinking.

The criminal prohibition of marijuana is all about thought control.

It doesn't matter if you're dedicated to a life of total abstention; you should be alarmed whenever state officials weave a tapestry of lies to justify punishing people. And even if you don't believe people should have the right to make autonomous choices about what they do with their minds and bodies, you should worry about a state that governs through moral panic and not through the rational development of public policy.

The current attempt to demonize grow ops deflects attention from the reality that while growing pot indoors is not inherently risky, the creation of an unregulated black market is dangerous.

Prohibitionists should be ashamed of themselves for spreading lies and hiding the fact that many of them have secretly partaken of the plant. We are at an impasse because the government is simultaneously trying to demonize and decriminalize. And those in power know that if you suck and blow at the same time, nothing will happen on the path to law reform.

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