While doing some research in the Netherlands recently, I was told a curious
story by an Amsterdam city councillor. This councillor is also the owner of
a "coffee shop" - a pub that sells marijuana - and so he often plays host
to the foreign officials who constantly tour Holland and marvel at how the
country's liberal justice policies have somehow managed to fail to spawn
depravity, misery and chaos of biblical proportions.

One day, he told me, he showed a foreign politician around his pleasant
little shop. He pointed to the second floor and told the visitor he had
another room upstairs. "That's where they inject hashish," he said with a
straight face.

The politician nodded his head solemnly. Ah yes, junkies injecting
hashish. Awful stuff, these drugs.

I laughed. And I'm sure most of you got the gag, too. But for the innocent,
let me explain that injecting hashish makes as much sense as injecting your
granddad's pipe tobacco. Obviously, this politician knew absolutely nothing
about drugs.

Unfortunately, he's not unique in that. Public debate about drugs is rife
with nonsense, even - or especially - when the politicians who draft laws
are talking. Recall Liberal MP Paul Szabo's warning to Parliament in 1995
that modern marijuana is "as potent as cocaine was 10 years ago."

Not only is this gibberish (it's like saying a shot of vodka is as potent
as a pack of Marlboros). It was gibberish uttered by the chairman of the
Commons committee that had reviewed the drug laws.

Drug policies have been much in the news this year.

First, there was Justice Minister Martin Cauchon's support for
decriminalizing marijuana possession (which would make it punishable by a
fine, not criminal conviction).

In September, there was the mammoth report by a Senate committee calling
for full marijuana legalization. This week, two reports by a Commons
committee, including one to be released today, are recommending
decriminalization of pot and harm-reduction measures for other drugs, while
Cauchon confirmed that the government will go ahead with decriminalization.

These events spurred an enormous amount of coverage and debate - almost all
of it falling somewhere between superficial and half-baked.

Just look at the hubbub following the release of the Senate report.
Reporters giggled and made juvenile jokes, like the senior TV correspondent
whose sole question at the press conference was "what have you been smoking?"

Coverage was often glib and occasionally misleading. As for the extensive
evidence cited in the Senate committee's comprehensive 650-page report,
scarcely a word of it appeared in the media because - let's be brutally
honest - many reporters read only the press release.

And it wasn't just the reporters. Newspapers and airwaves were stuffed with
opinionated commentators whose statements demonstrated they had never even
glanced at the report. In a typically revealing editorial, the Toronto Star
opined that "it's hard to imagine how legalizing marijuana would do
anything but increase" use. But they didn't have to imagine. They could
have turned to page 581 and read the chapter in which the senators reviewed
the evidence on that very issue.

Of course, not all will agree with the senators' conclusion that the law
has little or no effect on usage rates (although I do). But surely, critics
had an obligation to at least look at senators' evidence and present some
of their own. They didn't. Over and over, commentators mocked, belittled,
denounced and dismissed the senators while ignoring their evidence. It was
a shameful performance.

And it continues in the wake of Cauchon's latest announcement.
Decriminalization is a serious issue that raises many concerns. But all we
hear is lazy blather.

Here's a simple example. As any criminology student knows, you have to be
careful when you reduce, but don't eliminate, the punishment for an act.
Reduced punishments often prompt the justice system to apply the law in
cases where it would not have before. This is called "net-widening" and
it's an obvious risk of decriminalization.

Experience confirms it. In 1987, South Australia decriminalized marijuana,
with the wrinkle that failure to pay the ticket would result in a criminal
conviction. The new system had no effect on rates of marijuana use. But
over the next six years, tickets exploded from 6,000 a year to 17,000. And
since half the tickets went unpaid, more people were slapped with criminal
convictions after decriminalization than before.

Of course, pot jokes are fun and it's a lot easier to repeat claims of
know-nothing politicians than to do original research. But wouldn't it be
nice if we could talk about things like net-widening before we pass new
laws and suffer the consequences?

The Dutch have a word for these informed discussions. They call it democracy.

Pubdate: Thu, 12 Dec 2002
Source: Victoria Times-Colonist (CN BC)
Copyright: 2002 Times Colonist
Contact: Letters@Times-Colonist.Com
Website: Http://Www.Canada.Com/Victoria/Timescolonist/