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Canada: Time to Change Marijuana Laws

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Jan.27, 00
The Sudbury Star
Editorial Opinion
Making people suffering from long-term illnesses go to court is hardly compassionate. The trial of a Chelmsford man for possession and cultivation of marijuana would indicate that it could be time to revamp the laws governing the weed.
On Monday, Michel Lavoie was fined $2,000, put on 18 months' probation and was ordered to complete 50 hours of community service. He also was banned from using narcotics unless prescribed by a doctor. Lavoie was found guilty of possession of a narcotic and cultivation of a narcotic. He was found not guilty of possession of a narcotic for the purpose of trafficking. The decision stemmed from charges laid in 1995 after police found 85 marijuana plants in Lavoie's home. Lavoie's defence against the charges rested on his use of marijuana for medicinal reasons. Lavoie, who has been on a disability pension since 1988 for an injured back, says he uses the marijuana to ease the chronic pain.
For many sufferers of serious illnesses, smoking marijuana provides a means to ease the pain and side effects of such treatments as chemotherapy, say advocates for the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. AIDS and cancer victims say smoking marijuana helps them cope with nausea caused by chemical and radiation therapies. Others believe smoking the drug can relieve pain associated with multiple sclerosis, as well as prevent epileptic seizures.
Since 1981, the Canadian Medical Association has argued that the simple possession of marijuana should be decriminalized. But, as Lavoie discovered, smoking marijuana can result in charges, court appearances and fines for these patients, hardly a compassionate way to allow people to recover from, or cope with, their illnesses.
Patients, through their doctors, can apply for exemptions from the Criminal Code, but it is a long, arduous process and legally obtaining the marijuana is nearly impossible. Only about 20 people with serious illnesses have been granted permission by federal Health Minister Allan Rock to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. Lavoie says he had floated the idea of seeking an exemption with his doctor, but his doctor advocated trying more traditional treatments before making such an application. Rather than opting to break the law, Lavoie should have sought the advice of another doctor in order to have an application submitted.
While some patient advocacy groups press for better access to medicinal marijuana, there has been an effort to decriminalize marijuana because it places a disproportionate burden on the police and the courts compared to the risk marijuana represents to society.
In 1995, 43,000 Canadians were charged with 62,000 drug offences, and 71 per cent of them were for marijuana possession. In the past 20 years, 700,000 Canadians were arrested on marijuana charges. Since 1995 in British Columbia, police have been advised to stop laying marijuana charges because of court backlogs. The Canadian Police Association has recommended making simple marijuana possession a ticketable offence, similar to speeding.
Last year, the Ontario Superior Court judge presiding over the trial of a London, Ont., hemp shop owner, said that while marijuana is relatively harmless compared with alcohol and tobacco, it is politicians who must establish public policy. The nation's political leaders should take the cue and revamp the laws regarding the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Such a change has the public's support.
A 1997 Angus-Reid survey found that 51 per cent of Canadians believe smoking marijuana should not be a criminal offence. If used only for health-related purposes, 83 per cent of the 1,515 people who took part in the survey said it should not be a criminal offence to smoke marijuana. It's time Canada's political leadership moves to ease the legal burden being borne by people who require marijuana to ease their suffering by making the process for receiving a medical exemption less onerous.
Thursday, January 27, 2000 Copyright © 2000 The Sudbury Star