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Cannabis Health Journal, Sep/Oct 2003

Too Good to be True

By Paul Henderson

A few months ago the potential for marijuana decriminalization and the subsequent government distribution of marijuana to patients was sky high. Back in April Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced his government was "not afraid to take on controversial issues" and would decriminalize marijuana to reduce the harm of criminal records that young people face.

Into the summer, July 9 was a date greatly anticipated by anti-prohibition advocates, as it was the day the government had to either start distributing medicine to exemption-holding patients or the marijuana possession law would be rendered invalid.

A couple of positive stories for medicinal marijuana users and a win-win situation, right?

Too good to be true.

The incremental improvements many felt were inevitable and forthcoming have turned out to be disastrous and, according to advocates and those on the front lines of making medicinal marijuana easier to get for patients, things are worse, not better.

Refusing to take a real position of any kind, it seems the federal government decided to follow a path whereby they pleased everyone. As a result they are instead pissing everyone off. The ruse Health Canada and the Ministry of Justice attempted to pull, talking out of both sides of their mouth, has blown up and the government is looking dumber than ever. A disastrous "decriminalization" bill has been tabled, and Health Minister Ann McLellan is using the recent court decisions as a platform to tell us what she really thinks: that marijuana has no medicinal value.

And as a result of the tabling of Bill C-38 and the government being forced into distribution the American anti-drug zealots are mad, doctors are mad, patients are mad, everyday pot smokers are mad: So who was this pseudo-decriminalization and reluctant effort at distribution supposed to please? Tough to get an answer to that.

Criminal lawyer and anti-prohibition advocate Alan Young said that the whole premise of decriminalization is based on the premise that marijuana is a relatively harmless substance and he was led to believe the government understood this. Now he knows he was wrong.

"The proposed bill was not just a disappointment, it was a major disillusionment with a process that should have borne fruit," Young told Cannabis Health. "I've worked on this way too long to have them give me such a compromised piece of legislation."

The only possible benefit that most can see in the legislation, Bill C-38, is the fact that those caught with minor amounts will avoid a criminal record. Instead they will pay a fine up to $150. The reality though is that under the current Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) most police simply confiscate small amounts and let people off with a warning. Now the police have a discretionary ability to give fines to people who maybe can't afford them.

It looks like that in most cases, Bill C-38 actually provides for harsher enforcement and Young says the proposed bill cannot even be called "decriminalization". Rather it is in fact a worst-case scenario.

"I don't care if you go to jail or not (even though that is a big issue)" Young said. "For me criminal law means the power to arrest, detain, and search, and that's what they haven't taken away. You cannot demystify a substance like marijuana when you still let Officer Friendly take you down to the station and deprive you of liberty. (Justice Minister Martin) Cauchon left it to the discretion of the police to decide whether to treat you like a highway traffic offender or whether to treat you like a criminal. That's not decriminalization, that's the worst-case scenario where a low-level unaccountable official is making the decision."

Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, chairman of the Canadian Senate Select Committee on Illegal Drugs told DRCNet in an interview before the bill was tabled, "What the prime minister is proposing is not decriminalization, it is what I call depenalization. We are removing the criminal penalties, but the behaviour itself remains criminal, it just triggers a lesser penalty. This is the shadow of the first step."

Others have much harsher words for Bill C-38: "Pathetic, shameful, corrupt and incompetent." That's what Dominic Cramer, president of Toronto Hemp Company (THC) said about the bill.

Tell us what you really think Dominic.

"I would like to be able to applaud them for at least doing something, but screw that╔what choice did they have? I am embarrassed and ashamed to be a Canadian today and encourage the resignation of our disgraceful Health and Justice Ministers."

While those who support prohibition call Bill C-38 "decriminalization" and are infuriated by this "liberal" move by the government, some who support truly liberalized drug laws say this is not a step in the right direction but looks more like a long walk off a short pier.

Senator Nolin suggested that this is at least a first step but Cannabis Health asked Alan Young if he thought this was at least a step in the right direction: "No. I'd like to say 'yes',, in fact I was to be paid a fair amount of money by American lobbyists to support Cauchon and I turned it down, and I'd like to have the money. The thing with law reform, you can't do it incrementally. You can't say, 'you know what, let's let this pass and see if it works and then we can improve it in a few years.' They won't. As soon as it passes it will be left there for decades and it becomes a non-issue. And any mention of decriminalization and their response will be 'ancient history, we've addressed it.' So it just doesn't go far enough."

So the honest question remains: Why did the government make this move when it doesn't address the real concerns of Canadians and, frankly, only needles the right-wing prohibitionists, including the Americans?

Young says that the status quo was repackaged to create the illusion of change and that "the government gave us a national drug strategy made in the USA." Clearly the government was in a bind knowing that the vast majority of Canadians support liberalized drug laws while the current government in Washington is as Draconian as we've seen in a long time. So they try to please and appease.

"First of all they want to look like they are responsive to the electorate..." Young said. "A solid strong majority of Canadians have wanted decriminalization since 1975, that's still the majority position. So, if you make the announcement plus you have two of your own committee recommend it, you look like you are a responsive government. But if you are afraid of what the implications are and afraid of the reaction of the United States, what you do is you create the illusion of being responsive without being responsive. I actually think it was a brilliant ploy."

Well, it might have been brilliant had most people not seen its transparency. On the issue of what the Canadian consensus is, Senator Nolin said that "only 14% of Canadians want actual marijuana prohibition. The rest of the population favours legalization, decriminalization, or legalization for medical use. This reflects the fact that the population is increasingly well-informed, but still not enough."

Cramer of THC says the only positive aspect of the bill regarding the elimination of criminal records is drastically overshadowed by the negatives.

"I can't think of another benefit besides the avoidance of a criminal record for users caught with tiny amounts," Cramer said. "But they will still be harrassed, likely more than before, and they still will be punished. For harmless and beneficial behaviour! What a joke. Medical users? Hell no! Medical users generally can't afford hundreds of dollars in punishment for using a natural and needed medicinal plant."

Cramer's frustration with the proposed bill is palpable and he is far from alone. While smokers across the country initially greeted the news with public smoke-ups, many quickly became aware of what was really being proposed.

One aspect hard to ignore is the potential cash grab in the system of fines. Some fear the fines could create a whole new detachment of pot cops dedicated to handing out the fines as a cash cow for the police.

"That's been the experience in Australia and we worry about that," Young says. "If it becomes so easy to ticket people then 40,000 offenders that police turn a blind eye to, will now suddenly be ticketed because of the money. We call that 'widening the net of social control' and that has often been the result of trying to liberalize the law."

With Bill C-38 tabled and looking pretty disastrous to those in the community, many had hopes that July 9 would come and either mean the end of the possession law or the government would create a meaningful distribution system. Too good to be true. The government's July 9 annoucement that they would start distributing marijuana to doctors of the 500-plus medical marijuana patients currently with exemptions turned out to be a bust. The court's decision as a result of the action brought by Alan Young meant that on July 9 either the government had to start distributing marijuana or the CDSA law on possession would be invalid.

Ann McLellan was dragged kicking and screaming to this point and many, such as Phillipe Lucas, director of Canadians for Safe Access, have said the move smacked of bad faith. Young said that the government is doing this "with their fingers crossed behind their backs."

Day by day McLellan's point of view on the matter is becoming more and more clear. That point of view is summed up aptly in a quote she gave the National Post as reported on July 15: "If it doesn't have a medicinal benefit, I don't know why the department of health would approve it as such."

Sadly McLellan, in one swift statement, dismisses the benefits enjoyed by medical marijuana patients around the world and at the same time, she cynically starts a program that some argue she knows can't work.

Hillary Black, founder of the B.C. Compassion Club has said that this federal decision is "really just a smokescreen". According to Black the fact that the Canadian Medical Association and individual doctors are speaking out against the plan should have come as no surprise to Ottawa. The feds went this route, knowing it wouldn't work, which would give them time to appeal the court order set for late July.

Senator Nolin has said that he has spoken with a number of international experts on drug prohibition and they are waiting for the spark that could lead to radical change in the international system. "The Supreme Court of Canada could provide that spark," Nolin said. That seems to be the best shot as the elected officials stumble through the issue. Canada could be leading the way, they might lead the way, or the Canadian example of government meddling and bungling will be a paradigm of incompetence the rest of the world will ignore.

Time will tell.

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