Source: Ottawa Citizen
Pubdate: Sun 14 Jun 1998
Section: News A1 / Front
Author: Jim Bronskill

Relax marijuana laws: federal study

Cannabis possession warrants fines, not jail time, government report says

A federally funded think-tank on drug abuse recommends decriminalizing marijuana possession.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse ( says existing criminal penalties against marijuana smokers have done little to enhance public health and safety, while placing a heavy burden on police and the justice system.

The centre's newly published study, Cannabis Control in Canada, proposes dropping jail as a possible punishment for marijuana possession. Instead, the offence would become a civil violation, subject to a fine only.

``The available evidence indicates that removal of jail as a sentencing option would lead to considerable cost savings without leading to increases in rates of cannabis use,'' says the study.

The new approach would remain consistent with Canada's international treaty obligations to prohibit marijuana possession. But it would spare those convicted of the offence from being saddled with a criminal record.

The study warns, however, that far from being a benign drug, marijuana can have harmful effects on the respiratory system, physical co-ordination, fetal development and memory. It says decriminalization should be accompanied by new prevention programs and a strong message that the move does not signal less concern for the potential problems caused by cannabis use.

The paper was prepared last month by the centre's National Working Group on Addictions Policy. The centre was created by Parliament in 1988 to promote debate on substance abuse issues and to support organizations involved in education, prevention and treatment.

``The vast majority of Canadians no longer favour jail sentences for simple possession of cannabis,'' concludes the study.

``The civil violation option offers the best opportunity to achieve the most appropriate balance between the need to reduce the harms associated with cannabis use and the need to restrain the costs and harms involved in attempts to control use.''

The federal government, however, appears wary of the proposal. A recent Health Department memo obtained by the Citizen notes that once an activity has been legalized, it is very difficult to outlaw it again. ``Moving too swiftly to liberalize the use of marijuana may result in an inability to control problematic use in future,'' says the memo by the department's assistant deputy minister for policy.

Intense public debate about drug policy was sparked by last winter's decision to temporarily strip Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati of his Olympic gold medal for having a trace of marijuana in his system.

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in Canada, with possession accounting for about half of the more than 60,000 drug offences recorded annually. About 2,000 people are jailed for possession each year.

Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have a criminal record for marijuana possession, making it potentially difficult for them to enter certain countries or gain employment in some professions.

The federal government softened the laws somewhat last year, making possession of a small amount of cannabis punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. Individuals cannot be fingerprinted and no easily traceable information appears in computer databases. But those convicted still have criminal records.

The study suggests the new penalty would essentially amount to a ticket, easing the burden on the justice system. However, when some Australian states moved to a similar system, more people than anticipated fought the ticket, contributing to court costs, notes the Health memo.

``This is an extremely complex issue with many dimensions and at present there are many information gaps, making the forecasting of outcomes difficult.''

Another note by a department analyst suggests more public education in advance of any changes. ``There is obviously a need for a `post-Rebagliati' injection of drug education before drug policy takes a snowboard downhill.''

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