Marijuana reform: Weed out harsh laws

Canada’s federal politicians may be skittish about addressing our incoherent policies on “soft” drug use during the current election campaign. But whatever the outcome on May 2, they won’t be able to dodge the issue for long.

If Prime Minister Stephen Harper wins another term in office he will try again to beef up the country’s already-tough drug laws. Last year the Conservative-dominated Senate passed a bill requiring judges to jail people for a minimum six months for growing as few as six marijuana plants, if they are unlucky enough to be deemed traffickers. But the bill never made it through the Commons.

Meanwhile Mr. Justice Donald Taliano of Ontario Superior Court has just weighed in on the long-running drugs debate with a ruling that gives Ottawa three months to fix the dysfunctional federal medical marijuana program, which has been leaving patients hanging, or face the risk that pot will be legalized.

These developments raise the question of why Ottawa continues to criminalize the possession of even small quantities of cannabis. Millions of Canadians have tried the drug, and the courts generally tend to be lenient on those caught with small amounts. Still, even a summary conviction for simple possession of 30 grams (about one ounce, roughly 30 joints worth) of marijuana or one gram of cannabis resin (hashish) carries the risk of a $1,000 fine and/or six months in jail. That’s no small thing.

As the Star has argued for many years, it’s also hard to justify. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government had it right in 2003, with a proposal to reduce the penalty for simple marijuana possession to a ticket-like $180 fine for youths and $290 for adults caught with 15 grams or less. The plan went nowhere after causing friction with the administration of then-U.S. president George Bush, who was waging a war on drugs. Still, the Liberals had the right idea. It’s worth resurrecting.

The Ontario Court of Appeal in 2000 rightly cautioned that marijuana’s “effects are probably not as benign as was thought some years ago.” Even so, the court noted that weed is less damaging than hard drugs, tobacco and alcohol; does not induce criminal behaviour; and carries no overdose risk. Given that, it’s hard to see a pressing public policy justification for continuing to threaten minor offenders with jail time.

The case is even stronger for making sure that Canadians with illnesses such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy or HIV/AIDS can obtain marijuana legally through the federal medical program. For some, the drug offers relief from pain, dizziness, nausea and other symptoms. But doctors are loathe to endorse patients’ applications for licences to legally obtain marijuana, making the program unworkable. Ottawa needs to design a more effective way to deliver the goods.

It’s time to break with Reefer Madness thinking. We shouldn’t be jailing tokers, tying judges’ hands in dealing with a few flowerpots of weed, or making the sick beg for relief. That’s just dopey.

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