Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pot laws hurting society

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It's been two months since the states of Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana for personal use, joining dozens of countries that have decriminalized or legalized the drug without experiencing the collapse of their societies, an increase in mental illness or a rise in the laziness index.

These states have stopped making criminals out of pot smokers because they realized it was counter-productive; it fuelled drug profits for organized crime, tied up police resources and saddled millions of young people with criminal records.

And as Free Press reporter Bruce Owen discovered in a special story published Saturday, if Canada were to change its prudish policies and tax the drug, it could be worth $2 billion for Ottawa in new revenue and an extra $600 million for Manitoba every year.

That money could fill a lot of potholes and provide cash for a wide range of other challenges, including the health, education and social-service systems.

Smoking dope may not be the healthiest life choice, particularly if it is used to excess, but the fact is marijuana has been around Canada as long as grandpa, and it's not going away. The drug is really no more dangerous -- but probably less harmful -- than other undesirable habits, such as alcohol, cigarettes and chocolate doughnuts.

Booze was also banned at one point in the past, but the authorities re-legalized it after realizing -- as Colorado and Washington have realized today -- that it was counter-productive to try to stamp out a product that the otherwise law-abiding majority of people wanted.

People today want legal and safe access to marijuana. A recent survey by Toronto's Forum Research found 65 per cent of Canadians favour either the legalization and taxation of the drug, or decriminalizing it in small amounts. Other surveys have reached the same conclusion.

But despite all the evidence that suggests the country's marijuana laws are badly outdated, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is determined to not only maintain them, but to increase penalties for dealing in the drug.

The country under Mr. Harper has actually moved backwards on an issue that has been the subject of study for 40 years.

In 1972, for example, the Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, led by Gerald Le Dain, recommended repealing the law against the simple possession of cannabis and cultivation for personal use. A minority view on the committee recommended a policy of legal distribution of pot and that the provinces implement controls on possession and cultivation, similar to those governing the use of alcohol. It was a progressive report for the day, but, unfortunately, pretty much ignored.

Then, in 2002, separate committees of the Senate and House also recommended a more liberal approach.

The Senate committee said marijuana should be treated more like tobacco or alcohol than like harder drugs.

The House committee said while marijuana might be unhealthy, the current criminal penalties for possession and use of small amounts of cannabis are "disproportionately harsh." It recommended that the Canadian ministers of Justice and of Health develop a strategy to decriminalize the possession and cultivation of not more than 30 grams of pot for personal use.

Those reports also had negligible impact on the Liberal government of the day, which only promised to ease the penalties for simple possession.

With a rising number of people opposing the current laws, it's difficult to understand the Harper government's continuing obstinance, which appears to be based on an outdated and irrational fear of "reefer madness."

It's long past time for the government to listen to the evidence and to the will of the general public, rather than to obsolete and discredited ideas that do not serve the public interest.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 7, 2013 A10

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