Last week, Canada's governing Liberal Party introduced a bill that
would decriminalize the possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana.
"Cannabis consumption is first and foremost a health matter," Justice
Minister Martin Couchon declared. "It should not result in criminal
penalties." Under the new plan, a minor pot offense would be punished
with a citation and a fine, much like a speeding ticket.

The bill is strongly opposed by the Bush administration, which has
threatened to step up drug searches at the border, creating traffic
jams and delaying Canadian exports. "It is my job to protect Americans
from dangerous threats," John P. Walters, director of the Office of
National Drug Control Policy, warned last year, "and right now, Canada
is a dangerous staging area for some of the most dangerous marijuana."

The conflict revolves around a question being addressed in other
Western nations: should marijuana be legal, illegal - or something in

Canada's move to decriminalize is part of a shift in international
attitudes toward pot, away from the "reefer madness" legacy. Spain and
Italy decriminalized marijuana in the 1990's. Portugal decriminalized
it in 2001, Luxembourg and Belgium the next year. In the Netherlands -
where pot has been available since 1976 - "pharmaceutical grade"
cannabis is provided, free of charge, through the national health
service. Britain plans to reduce penalties for possession this summer,
a policy supported by the nation's leading medical journal, The
Lancet. It concluded, "moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill
effect on health."

Meanwhile, the United States has escalated its war on pot. The number
of marijuana arrests now approaches three-quarters of a million
annually, largely for simple possession. More people are in prison for
marijuana crimes today than ever before. Dozens, if not hundreds, are
serving life sentences for nonviolent pot offenses. Attorney General
John Ashcroft has called for full enforcement of the pot laws and
spearheaded a crackdown on medicinal marijuana providers in
California, though their efforts are legal under state law.

The war on marijuana, however, is by no means a partisan affair. It
unites Democrats and Republicans in a uniquely American crusade waged
on moral grounds.

Though Bill Clinton was the first president to admit having put a
joint in his mouth, more people were arrested for marijuana during his
administration than under any other American president. Richard M.
Nixon may have seemed the nemesis of young pot smokers, but more than
three times as many people were arrested for pot while Mr. Clinton was
president. "Marijuana is illegal, dangerous, unhealthy and wrong,"
said Donna E. Shalala, his secretary of health and human services.

The prohibition of marijuana in the United States has historically
been driven more by a fear and dislike of people associated with it
than by reasoned consideration of its actual harm. The laws have been
used to sanction racial minorities and nonconformists. Oddly enough,
the first American law about marijuana, passed by the Virginia
Assembly in 1619, required every household to grow it. Hemp was
considered a valuable commodity.

Popular fears of marijuana arose in the early 20th century, prompted
by the use of the drug by Mexican immigrants. Rumors spread about the
"killer weed" that incited violent crimes and drove its users insane.

Marijuana was linked not only to poor Mexicans, but also to poor
blacks and the new music they played: jazz. Jazz was then regarded
much as hip-hop is today in some circles, as a subversive and barbaric
threat to the national morality. Not long after marijuana was outlawed
in 1937, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics planned to stage a nationwide
roundup of black jazz musicians who smoked pot. Harry J. Anslinger,
head of the bureau, hated jazz and saw it as a corrupting influence in
American life. The plan was thwarted, however, by the inability of its
agents to infiltrate the jazz milieu.

First Mexicans, blacks and jazz musicians; then beatniks and hippies;
now members of the hip-hop world - marijuana has always been
associated with minorities and subcultures that seem to threaten
mainstream America. America's marijuana laws usually expressed that
fear of outsiders in moralistic terms, while proving ineffective at
stopping pot use.

The hippie counterculture of the 1960's rose at a time when America's
marijuana laws were at their harshest; in Louisiana, possessing any
pot could mean a prison sentence of 99 years. Pot use flourished, as a
form of rebellion, and middle-class parents questioned the stiff laws,
once their children were jailed for possessing a joint.

The comedians Cheech & Chong became the embodiment of a new stoner
culture; far from alarming, it was presented as sweet and ridiculous.
In 1972 a commission appointed by President Nixon advocated
decriminalizing marijuana, aiming to "desymbolize it." The following
year Oregon became the first state to decriminalize pot; 11 other
states followed; and President Jimmy Carter supported
decriminalization at the federal level. By the end of the 1970's, as
marijuana laws were being relaxed in the United States, pot use among
teenagers reached its peak and then started to decline.

Moral condemnations of pot smokers and long prison sentences were
revived by President Ronald Reagan, as a part of that era's culture
wars. Mr. Reagan's first drug czar, Carlton E. Turner, felt that
marijuana use was linked to anti-authority behavior and insisted pot
could turn young men into homosexuals.

As marijuana use declined among middle-class families, elected
officials saw little political gain in opposing the tough drug laws.
Many saw strong opposition to marijuana as an easy way to distance
themselves from the excesses of the hippie counterculture.

Today, it is largely poor people and minority offenders who are
imprisoned for marijuana offenses. Pot smokers can now lose their
cars, houses, jobs, student loans and food stamps after getting busted.

The nation's harsh marijuana policy increasingly isolates Washington
from many of its allies. In February, the Justice Department staged a
nationwide roundup of bong and roach clip manufacturers. Even as the
nation feared seemingly imminent attacks by Al Qaeda, an inchoate
danger, Attorney General Ashcroft announced the success of "Operation
Pipe Dream." Among those arrested was Tommy Chong, who now
manufactures a line of bongs.

The symbolism could hardly have been more fitting. Mr. Chong recently
plead guilty to a federal conspiracy charge and could face a prison
sentence of five years.

Pubdate: Sun, June 1 2003
Source: New York Times (NY)
Section: Week in Review
Copyright: 2003 The New York Times Company