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Old July 15th, 2007, 02:12 PM  
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Default Canada: A Majority Favors Marijuana Legalization, But Arrests Are Rising

Even as new polling shows a majority of Canadian adults favors legalizing marijuana and a United Nations survey shows that Canada is one of the most pot-happy countries on the planet, marijuana arrests up north are on the rise. Most observers credit the increase in marijuana arrests to police forces no longer dispirited by the prospect of imminent decriminalization, as appeared to be the case under the former Liberal government.

In an Angus Reid poll conducted in mid-June, 55% of respondents said marijuana should be legalized. And while the Conservative government of Prime Minister Steven Harper has rejected the marijuana decriminalization proposal brought forward by the Liberals when they were in power, only 38% agreed with that policy, with 52% supporting the never-enacted Liberal proposal.

(The poll also found little support for the legalization of any other drugs, with 9% supporting legal heroin, 8% supporting legal cocaine, and 7% for legal methamphetamine. And while a surprisingly high 71% favored mandatory minimum prison sentences for large marijuana grow operators and drug dealers, only 37% favored eliminating harm reduction programs such as needle exchanges and safe injection sites.)
This week, Canadian newspapers ran a spate of stories based on the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime 2007 World Drug Report highlighting high marijuana usage levels in Canada. According to the UN report, Canadians smoke pot at four times the global rate, and, with 16.8% of adults reporting past year usage, Canada has the fifth highest use rate, behind only Zambia (17.7% in 2003), Ghana (21.5% in 1998) and Papua New Guinea and Micronesia, which tied for first place at 29% each in 1995.

The report inspired the National Post to call for a change in the country's marijuana laws in a Wednesday editorial bluntly titled "Legalizing Pot Makes Sense." After noting that if Canada had alcohol or tobacco use rates four times the world average, the results would be starkly apparent in illness and mortality figures, the Post wondered:
"But where is the health 'footprint' of our love for the weed? Maybe it's hidden in our labor productivity statistics; it certainly doesn't seem to have any impact on our life expectancy or our other measurable health outcomes. Despite dauntingly high ostensible rates of use, and despite the hazards of adulteration and intensification that are attendant upon cannabis's illegal status, we don't seem to be doing ourselves any major harm from a long experiment in comparative weed tolerance.
"This is a strong datum in favor of the view that marijuana is fundamentally innocuous compared with the 'historical' drugs of abuse that enjoy broad social and legal acceptance, and a blow to those who contend that it is a 'gateway' to harder drugs, since there is nothing in the UN data on those drugs to suggest that we are passing through that gate in particularly large numbers. That would seem to leave very little, aside from the omnipresent trade and travel considerations that come from being a neighbor of the US, to stand logically in the way of decriminalization."
But the views of the Post and numerous commissions and parliamentary panels notwithstanding, Canada under the Harper government is not moving in that direction. Instead, the Canadian Press reported Tuesday that arrests for marijuana possession had jumped between 20% and 50% in several major Canadian cities last year. As a result, thousands of Canadians now have criminal records for an offense that just a few years ago was on the verge of extinction.

"Everybody was waiting for what was going to happen... There'd be no use clogging up the court system with that decriminalization bill there. When that was defeated, I'd say it was business as usual," Terry McLaren, president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, told The Canadian Press.

"They may charge more people, but they're not deterring youth, they're not putting in funds for education or prevention. The (Tories) have a very regressive policy that's in line with what the US is doing in its so-called war on drugs -- which is a total failure," noted New Democratic Party Member of Parliament Libby Davies.

Another drug policy reformer, attorney and criminology professor Eugene Oscapaella of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy noted that regulation and public health education have succeeded in driving down cigarette and alcohol consumption, where prohibition has failed. "Going into the 21st century, we should know better than to bludgeon the use of this drug with criminal law," he said. "It doesn't work, hasn't worked, there's no prospect that it ever will work. Yet we continue to do it."

And Canada will continue to do it as long as the Conservatives hold power. But even a change in governance does not mean substantive marijuana law reform will come to Canada. In the previous Liberal government, although every party except the Conservatives supported the decriminalization proposal, the government failed to bring it to a vote. Somehow, the majority of Canadians who favor legalization need to translate that support into political action.

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