Pot smokers gain Senate backers

Globe and Mail

Friday, May 3, 2002

Scientific evidence that marijuana leads to use of hard drugs lacking, panel says

OTTAWA -- Canadian pot smokers have found new political allies in the stodgy Senate.

Some members of the chamber of sober second thought say there is no proof marijuana leads to the use of other drugs.

The Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs released a discussion paper yesterday on marijuana that states there is no scientific evidence that cannabis leads users to harder narcotics.

"It may be appropriate to treat it more like alcohol or tobacco than like the harder drugs," said Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, chairman of the special committee.

But Mr. Nolin said it is too early to know whether the committee, in its final report to be completed by August, will recommend decriminalizing marijuana. "We're questioning prohibition as an effective way or policy to control a substance."

Two years ago, the five-member committee embarked on its review of antidrug legislation and policies. It has heard from 80 witnesses, including the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, the Canadian Police Association and public-health experts.

"We know it's an important question," Mr. Nolin said. "Almost all Canadians have an opinion on drugs."

Mr. Nolin said the committee heard many times from those who believe decriminalizing marijuana is morally wrong. "Moral is not exactly the kind of scientific evidence we're looking for," he said.

The senators' discussion paper on cannabis found that most recreational users smoke marijuana "only temporarily and irregularly," with 10 per cent becoming "chronic users" and 5 to 10 per cent becoming addicted. The report found that marijuana is not a "gateway" to getting hooked on harder drugs.

"There is no convincing evidence to establish the gateway hypothesis," the discussion paper states. "Data from population surveys show that out of 100 cannabis users in adolescence, about 10 will become regular users and five will move to using other drugs."

Senator Tommy Banks said that one concern of the committee members is the cost of enforcement in criminal cases involving marijuana.

The committee reports that 30,000 people are charged with simple cannabis possession each year.

"Marijuana is perhaps the least harmful 'drug,' " Mr. Banks said.

The committee will travel to six cities across Canada, including Montreal, Regina and Richmond, B.C, in May and June for town-hall meetings on the issue.

Last week, the Liberal government effectively blocked a private member's bill introduced by Canadian Alliance MP Keith Martin to decriminalize possession of small quantities of marijuana. Dr. Martin said the Senate committee's study will not result in any significant changes.

"This problem goes around and around in circles," he said. "For the Senate to study it again is a waste of time, money and the House resources. They just need to act instead of studying things ad nauseum."

Marc Emery, president of the B.C. Marijuana Party in Vancouver, welcomed the committee's findings but said he doubts they will result in any change in drug laws.

"They're giving everyone a fair shake because they don't have a political stake," he said. "But the Prime Minister's Office won't have anything to do with it."

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