Canadian Senate Panel Calls for Marijuana Legalization

The Canadian Senate's Special Committee on Illegal Drugs issues a report recommending the legalization of marijuana and hashish.

Phillip S. Smith, David Borden

The Canadian Senate's Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, which has spent the last two years doing a comprehensive review of Canada's drug laws, called Wednesday for an end to cannabis prohibition and its replacement with a legal, regulated marijuana market.

The committee's final report, while not binding, will increase political pressure on the Liberal government of Premier Jacques Chretien to address reform of Canada's cannabis laws, which have gone badly out of sync with popular practice and sentiment in recent years, the committee said.

"Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public health issue", said Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, Chair of the Special Committee, in an Ottawa news conference announcing the report's release. "Indeed, domestic and international experts and Canadians from every walk of life told us loud and clear that we should not be imposing criminal records on users or unduly prohibiting personal use of cannabis. At the same time, make no mistake, we are not endorsing cannabis use for recreational consumption. Whether or not an individual uses marijuana should be a personal choice that is not subject to criminal penalties. But we have come to the conclusion that, as a drug, it should be regulated by the State much as we do for wine and beer, hence our preference for legalization over decriminalization."

The call for legalization and regulation was greeted with cheers by cannabis advocates on both sides of the border. "Canada is moving in the same direction as Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The US is alone among developed nations in hanging on to marijuana prohibition," said Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy. "The US has for years forced our drug war on our neighbors. Canada is finally just saying no."

"Objective reviews keep debunking the thinking behind prohibition, but our government throws them on the trash heap every time," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "We should be grateful that the Canadians, like the British, are trying to do the sort of honest, fact-based analysis that our government refuses to do. Americans should give this a serious look -- and reject the prohibitionist policies that have failed for two-thirds of a century."

"This is a great report," said Marc Boris St-Maurice, head of Canada's national Marijuana Party. "It's a recipe to legalize marijuana and make it work," he told DRCNet. "It's a must read for any self-respecting activist or advocate. We had an idea this was coming, but this is absolutely ideal. It will put pressure to change on Canada's institutions."

"We are extremely pleased," said Eugene Oscapella, executive director of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy. "These guys have thoroughly researched the subject and have the guts to tell it like it is," he told DRCNet. "We are pleased with the frankness and honesty. This has been a long time coming. This will make it safer for other politicians to talk about the issue in a rational way, and once the debate becomes rational, we will see change," he said.

According to the committee report, only cannabis-related activity that causes demonstrable harm to others, such as impaired driving or selling to minors under 16, or is related to an export trade in the weed, should be prohibited. The Canadian government should introduce cannabis regulation legislation "stipulating conditions for obtaining licences, producing and selling cannabis; criminal penalties for illegal trafficking and export; and the preservation of criminal penalties for all activities falling outside the scope of the exemption scheme," the committee recommended.

The committee also called for amnesty for all Canadians convicted of cannabis possession and recommended that Canada inform the United Nations it intends to seek to amend the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and related treaties, the legal backbone of the global prohibition regime. "There is a clear international trend to reassessing domestic drug policy such as recent initiatives toward decriminalization in the United Kingdom," the committee noted. Deputy Chair Senator Colin Kenny, glancing toward the south, added, "though what we are recommending for our country has an impact on our friends and neighbours, Canada must make its own decisions in the best interests of its citizens."

While the committee report is a welcome addition to reform advocates' arsenals, it will not necessarily lead to quick or easy change in Canada's cannabis laws. "There is no guarantee the recommendations will be implemented," said St.-Maurice. While members of either chamber of Parliament may introduce non- financial bills, such as one to regulate cannabis commerce, the ruling Liberal Party would have to push such bills. It has shown little interest so far in doing so.

Still, said St.-Maurice, it is one more straw on the camel's back. "In the context of cannabis in Canada right now, with the Justice Minister's recent comments, with widespread popular support, and with the Supreme Court cases on the constitutional right to use recreational marijuana coming in the next six or eight months, this just adds to the momentum," he argued. "This report could influence the Supreme Court, and if they rule favorably, that will put real pressure on the government to do something in the House of Commons."

But the House of Commons also has a committee working on drug policy, with a report due out in November. According to Oscapella, the House report may not be as favorable to reform as the Senate report because, unlike senators, House members face popular election. At any rate, Oscapella said, it is unlikely that any action will take place before the House report is issued.

Also notable, especially in contrast to the shrillness infecting the drug policy debate in the US, was the tone of reason and compassion reflected in the Canadian approach. "In a free and democratic society, which recognizes fundamentally but not exclusively the rule of law as the main source of normative rules and in which government must promote autonomy as far as possible and therefore make only sparing use of the implements of constraint, public policy around psychoactive substances must be structured around guiding principles respecting the life, health, security, rights and freedoms of individuals who, naturally and legitimately, seek their own well-being and development, and can recognize the presence, difference, and equality of others," the committee explained.

The committee made 11 formal recommendations for action to the Canadian government:

* Create a "National Advisor on Psychoactive Substances," who would be less a drug czar than an inter-ministerial facilitator.

* Hold a high-level conference with "key stakeholders" next year to set priorities for action for the next five years.

* Change the name of the "Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse" to the "Canadian Centre on Psychoactive Substances and Dependence," fund it from Parliament, and mandate it to produce an annual report on drugs and drug policy, coordinate research on drugs and dependency, and undertake five-year assessments of the national drug strategy.

* Create a Monitoring Agency on Psychoactive Substances to measure drug use trends on a biennial basis.

* Adopt "an integrated policy on the risks and harmful effects of psychoactive substances covering the whole range of substances (medication, alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs)." Cannabis policy should focus on "educating users, detecting and preventing at-risk use and treating excessive use."

* Create a cannabis production and licensing scheme.

* Declare amnesty for anyone convicted of cannabis possession under current or past law.

* Amend the federal medical marijuana program to ease rules regarding eligibility, production, and distribution, and do more research on medical marijuana.

* Amend the criminal code to lower blood alcohol levels necessary to trigger drunk driving violations when other drugs are present.

* Create a national fund for research on psychoactive substances and dependency. Key research topics would include therapeutic uses of cannabis, tools for detecting driving under the influence, and finding effective prevention and treatment programs.

* Inform appropriate United Nations authorities that Canada "is requesting an amendment to the conventions and treaties governing illegal drugs."

The committee report, along with proceedings, testimony, research, and general information can be accessed at //www.parl.gc.ca/illegal-drugs.asp online.

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