420 Magazine Background




Newshawk: Peter
Pubdate: Thu, 10 Aug 2000
Source: Winnipeg Free Press (CN MB)
Copyright: 2000 Winnipeg Free Press
Contact: letters@freepress.mb.ca
Address: 1355 Mountain Avenue, Winnipeg Manitoba R2X 3B6
Fax: (204) 697-7288

Author: Catherine Mitchell


"The ordinary citizen, seeing the assertions implied by the law frequently belied by
pharmacological fact or the effects that he himself experiences in the use of drugs, has long
since ceased to look for a relationship between the harmfulness of a substance and its
classification under criminal law. In this domain, it must be said that the criminal law is
thoroughly outdated and outworn."

- -- Marie-Andree Bertrand, Le Dain Commission 1973.

In 1973, the Le Dain commission found that little was known of the harmful uses of
cannabis. It also recommended that possession of cannabis be decriminalized.

In 1978, then prime minister Pierre Trudeau was on-side, promising legislation that would do
just that. But then Joe Clark became prime minister and the issue all but disappeared from
the radar screen. Over the years, with little movement politically to make marijuana
possession and use legal, judges regularly granted discharges or a conditional sentence for
simple possession. Police chiefs have called upon Ottawa to decriminalize possession,
allowing fines to replace criminal charges.

Last week, the Ontario Court of Appeal warned it would stop enforcing the marijuana law if
the federal government didn't move faster to make pot more available for medical purposes.

In the absence of clear political will, Canadians are watching law enforcers take the matter
into their own hands, reflecting polls that continue to show upwards of 30 per cent of the
population lights up and the majority support decriminalizing.

In effect, Canadians have landed in a spot where the law of the land is not supported by the
courts, police, public opinion or science. Even Stockwell Day has used pot. What good does
this law serve? And when my kids ask me what's wrong with smoking pot, what should I say?

Marijuana has been used for 1,000 years by various societies and is not addictive, as are
tobacco and alcohol, says pharmacologist Wayne Lautt. While there can be a claim that using
this drug, like many other activities, can become psychologically addictive, real physiological
dependence is demonstrated by identifiable withdrawal symptoms, which is not the case with
pot. In fact, the University of Manitoba professor says there is no scientific evidence that
using marijuana does any of the things teenagers are warned about when the age of
experimentation arises -- that it kills brain cells, lowers testosterone levels in males, depresses
immune systems. All myths, says Lautt, and fodder for scaremongers. It's accomplished
little, he notes, except, as Marie-Andree Bertrand so succinctly stated almost 30 years ago, to
instil suspicion and cynicism in generation after generation of young adults who learn, by their
own experience, not to trust what government and various agencies present as fact.

In 1972, the Le Dain commission said it appeared colds were soothed by marijuana use.
Today, marijuana use is allowed, by exemption, for medical purposes. It has been
demonstrated, although not scientifically, that those suffering from painful conditions, the ill
effects of chemotherapy and other ailments find relief using the drug. And, now in the wake
of the Ontario appeal court decision, Torontonian Terry Parker can continue using marijuana
to control his epilepsy. Ottawa has a year to revise the law to include such a provision or
marijuana use will be legal in Ontario.

Lautt, whose area of research centres on diabetes, has some experience, academically
speaking, with marijuana. Immediately following the Le Dain commission's recommendations
to decriminalize, the federal government put out a call for research on the effects of
marijuana. Lautt says $1 million a year went into funding these studies, but only for
proposals that looked to prove some negative effect, he notes. He was a part of a group at
the University of Montreal that looked at the impact on metabolism through experiments on
animals, a study Lautt says found no ill-effect and to his knowledge was never published.

Lautt has followed the story of marijuana, legally and scientifically, with some interest -- it is
his job as a scientist, he says, to know what are the concerns of the day and to be able to
advise students and the public generally on the facts -- and has found no study of value that
can point to ill effects from the drug. Most of the myths have been born of studies in which
extreme amounts of the drug were used, with no reduction to levels approaching those useful
for debate. Intuitively, it makes sense that those smoking marijuana are at risk of respiratory
diseases, he says.

On the other hand, there is lots of harm coming from the criminalization of marijuana. For
decades, those interested in public policy have decried the criminal records slapped on young
people for possessing pot. Lautt says there's that to be concerned about. But, more, he
notes, is the fact the illegality of pot introduces kids to harder drugs because they are buying
the stuff from pushers who have an interest in getting people hooked. People don't get hooked
on pot, but they might be convinced to try other mind-altering substances, like heroin and
cocaine, that can reel them in real quick.

So, the question is, why can't we control pot the way alcohol is controlled. You don't want to
hop into a taxi driven by a guy who has been imbibing all day. Tax it, issue health warnings,
educate the youth about the real health implications. But that would require scientific proof,
or at least a balancing of the probabilities.

It would also mean parents and educators would have to present to kids clear arguments
based on fact about the impact drugs can have on their lives and good reasons not to use, or
at least abuse, them. And it would remove an easy opportunity for pariahs like pushers to
introduce kids to really dangerous drugs. As it stands, I can only tell my kids to be wary of
pot and beware the law.

Catherine Mitchell is a Free Press editorial writer. Her column appears on Thursdays.

MAP posted-by: Eric Ernst
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