Blame Canada

A specter is haunting U.S. drug warriors -- the specter of marijuana decriminalization ... in Canada.

U.S. lawmakers discovered with alcohol in the 1920s that it's difficult to run a successful prohibitionist regime when a neighboring country has more tolerant policies. Now it's the same neighbor and a different drug.

Canada's National Post has quoted Asa Hutchinson, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), saying that recent and proposed cannabis policy reforms in Canada and Britain could undermine support for the "war on drugs" within the United States.

"We (in the U.S.) have great respect for Canada and Britain," Hutchinson said, "and if they start shifting policies with regards to marijuana, it simply increases the rumblings in this country that we ought to re-examine our policy. It is a distraction from a firm policy on drug use."

With classic understatement, the DEA chief noted that decriminalizing marijuana possession in Canada would "complicate things somewhat for the U.S." It certainly would, as two striking precedents show.

There is the case of the Netherlands, which for more than two decades has "complicated things" for drug warriors in Europe. A generation of Europeans has seen Holland's regulated system of cannabis cafes succeed as a workable, reasonable alternative to punitive and ineffective anti-drug policies. Many tourists have visited Dutch border towns and cities to use cannabis and sometimes to bring it home.

The DEA chief used the Dutch experience to evoke the specter of a Netherlands-like Canada attracting marijuana tourists: "If you have lax marijuana policies right across the border, where possession of marijuana is not considered criminal conduct, that invites U.S. citizens into Canada for marijuana use, and that will increase the likelihood that both U.S. citizens and Canadian citizens will bring back the Canadian marijuana across the border for distribution and sale."

A second worrisome precedent dates back to the 1920s, when Canada ended its own failed alcohol prohibition before the United States repealed the 18th Amendment in 1933. At that time, Canada was a major source for the banned drug. Many U.S. tourists also used their cars, trucks or boats to smuggle small quantities of alcohol.

Just as important, regulated alcohol policies in Canada (and England) also served as easy-to-witness examples of workable alternatives to the expensive, punitive and impossible crusade for an "alcohol-free society." There is no doubt that Canada's successful example was extremely important in shifting opinion about alcohol policy in the United States.

Today, Canada, Britain and other countries will likely play the same example-setting role for the United States.

A growing number of mainstream Canadian officials, politicians, organizations, and publications have already proposed reducing or eliminating criminal penalties for cannabis use. A year ago, the Toronto Globe urged the country to "decriminalize all -- yes, all -- personal drug use, henceforth to be regarded primarily as a health issue rather than as a crime."

Recently, Canadian Minister of Justice Martin Cauchon said that his country is seriously considering eliminating criminal penalties for possessing marijuana. Cauchon is waiting for the recommendations of a legislative committee that is expected to recommend relaxing current laws. "We're not talking about making it legal," Cauchon said, "we're talking about the possibility of moving ahead with what we call 'decriminalization.'"

Moving ahead on decriminalization will take time. Canada will not soon become the Netherlands of North America, nor Vancouver its Amsterdam. Marijuana production and sale is still illegal everywhere in the world, and even in the Netherlands most cannabis use is indoors, private and discrete. Finally, the United States, which currently arrests more than 700,000 people a year for cannabis, shows no sign of letting up.

But the United States is ever more alone on its punitive drug-war path. Many democratic countries have informally or officially decriminalized cannabis possession and use and others are moving in that direction. Most important, this is occurring in the culturally linked, English-speaking countries of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Canada is already a cannabis-exporting nation and, as in Europe, indoor cultivation is booming. Canada's main customer is the United States. As was true for alcohol in the 1920s, this cannot be stopped. There can never be enough police to do the job.

By responsibly going ahead with marijuana decriminalization --- by doing what is best for its own citizens -- Canada is again likely to lead the way for the United States. As it did 70 years ago, Canada can again help the U.S. see its own better drug policy future.

Harry G. Levine ( is a professor of sociology at Queens College, City University of New York, and author of "Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice" (1997, University of California Press)

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