Pushing to Make Marijuana Acceptable

Goals Include Decriminalization and Medical Use

OTTAWA, JUNE 2, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Campaigns to legalize marijuana continue in a number of countries. The Canadian Medical Association Journal, for instance, argued in a recent editorial that possession of limited amounts of marijuana should be decriminalized. The drug has a “minimal negative” health risk when used in moderation, according to the editorial, the National Post reported May 15.

Moreover, half of all drug arrests in Canada are for possession of small amounts of marijuana, the medical journal notes, often leading to fines or jail terms and a criminal record. An estimated 600,000 Canadians — in a population of 31 million — have criminal records for marijuana possession. In 1998 alone, 19,200 adults and youths were charged for having marijuana.

Dr. John Hoey, editor of the journal, said that of the drugs people use for their “psychoactive” effects, marijuana appears to be among the least harmful. Hoey did admit, however, that there is concern that smoking marijuana can lead people to other drugs and that inhaling the smoke can cause harm.

The Canadian Police Association opposes the proposal to legalize marijuana, the Globe and Mail reported May 28. The group, which represents 30,000 police officers, will present to the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs a brief that outlines the dangers of decriminalizing the drug. The House of Commons voted to create the committee, which will have 18 months to study drug laws, as part of a review of Canada´s drug policy.

The police association noted that there was “weakening perception of risk of harm in drug use, and weakening moral disapproval of drug use.” According to Dale Orban, director of the Regina Police Association, “The costs of drug liberalization will be astronomical, not only in terms of health care and social services, but in true human terms.”

There is no such thing as safe use of illicit drugs, including marijuana, he added. Marijuana disrupts brain activity, including judgment, concentration and short-term memory, he said. Canada, Orban contended, should learn from the mistakes of other countries, such as the Netherlands, which he said has found that crime, violence and drug use go hand in hand. Orban urged Canada to follow the example of Sweden, which adopted a drug-eradication strategy after the permissive policies of the 1960s and 1970s.

As well as the parliamentary inquiry, Canada´s Supreme Court will consider a case this year that contends criminal charges for the personal use of marijuana violate constitutional rights, the Wall Street Journal reported May 29. Medicinal use of marijuana for cancer sufferers is now allowed, and in April the nation´s health minister, Allan Rock, proposed expanding such use to people with AIDS and other terminal illnesses, severe arthritis, multiple sclerosis, spinal injuries and epilepsy.

Rules eased in Europe

Laws against the use of marijuana in Europe are being relaxed. In Switzerland, authorities are turning a blind eye to marijuana use, at least in some areas, the New York Times reported March 25. Around the city of Bern there is a relaxed attitude toward the drug, though laws are applied more strictly in the French-speaking western part of the country.

A government survey in February found that up to a fourth of the nation´s 7 million people have smoked marijuana. Among the 90,000 estimated to smoke daily, nearly one-third are teen-agers. An additional 500,000 are thought to smoke occasionally.

Officials announced in March that they were bowing to “social reality” and would take steps to remove the penalties for consumption of marijuana and hashish and lift some restrictions on their sale and production.

The decision came under fire from some U.N. agencies, which were already critical of a Swiss program that provides needles and heroin to certain hard-core addicts in an effort to reduce crime and the spread of AIDS.

The proposed changes, unlikely to take effect until 2003, have invited comparison with the Netherlands, where marijuana “coffee shops” have become nearly a part of the national identity. Switzerland´s controlled opening of the cannabis market, once approved by Parliament, could go further than the law in the Netherlands, where cannabis consumption is only partly decriminalized.

But approval of the initiative by Parliament is far from sure. The Swiss People´s Party says it will fight any such change in a national referendum. In 1998, voters rejected a broader initiative to legalize all drug consumption.

In the rest of Europe, according to an article in the Spanish paper, El País, May 7, only four member states of the European Union — Sweden, France, Finland and Greece — continue to punish with any severity the use of marijuana. In the other states, the use of limited quantities of marijuana for personal use is either not subject to penalties, or the sanctions are negligible.

In Spain and Italy there are fines for its use, however they do not imply a judicial decision that leaves a criminal record. Others, such as Belgium and Luxembourg, are in the process of changing the rules in order to allow the use of marijuana. In Ireland, only the possession, and not the use of the drug, is penalized. In Germany, Austria and Denmark, the authorities permit the possession and use of small quantities of marijuana.

In the Netherlands, if the latest proposals go ahead, the sale of marijuana will be boosted by the opening of drive-through shops. According to the New York Times on May 28, the town of Venlo wants to open two shops where “drug tourists” can buy small amounts of marijuana and hashish without even getting out of their cars.

Venlo has five licensed coffee shops where customers can pick their favorite brands of marijuana and hashish. The town receives a constant stream of visits from German buyers, who cross the nearby border. As a result, illegal drug dealers also plague the town.

Elke Haanraadts, the town planner in charge of the project, explained that the idea is to put the drive-throughs outside town, even closer to the German border, a half-mile away. The hope is that the dealers will also get out of town.

U.S. Supreme Court rules out use

The U.S. Supreme Court on May 14 rejected the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The court ruled 8-0 that federal law does not allow a “medical necessity” exception to the prohibition or distribution of marijuana, the New York Times reported May 15.

The ruling did not overturn the initiatives in some states to permit the use of marijuana for medical ends. The court ruled that marijuana´s listing by Congress as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act meant that it “has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”

Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, in addition to California, Nevada and Maine, have passed medical marijuana initiatives in recent years. Advocates for medical marijuana said that this campaign would continue in spite of the Supreme Court decision.

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