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August 3, 2001

Narco News 2001

Canada... One

Step Closer to


By Alejandro Bustos

Canadian Correspondent

TORONTO - Many Canadians consider it a given that marijuana will eventually be decriminalized here. Unlike the United States, which is addicted to the drug war, Canada is making steady progress in reforming its narcotics laws.

This shift towards reform has been taking place for several years now, and can be seen on several fronts.

The most recent development is Ottawa's decision to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. The new law, which came into effect July 30, allows severely ill patients with a doctor's approval to apply to Health Canada to grow and use marijuana. In sharp contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 8-0 this past May that there is "no accepted medical use" for pot.

The difference between Washington and Ottawa has been noted abroad. The day after Ottawa's medical marijuana law came into effect, the respected Mexican daily La Jornada noted that the attitude in Canada, "contrasted with the situation in the United States." Radio Formula 1500 AM in Mexico City also extensively covered the new Canadian law.

A second factor driving Canada's drug reform efforts is its relatively Liberal view on using marijuana.

In the United States, the last two presidents have given embarrassing answers when asked if they have ever used drugs. Bill Clinton said he puffed but didn't inhale; George W. Bush has completely dodged the issue, claiming his "irresponsible" actions as a youth are irrelevant.

North of the U.S. border, however, politicians routinely admit to having tried drugs. Of the five political parties in the House of Commons, the leaders of three - the New Democratic Party, the Alliance and the Bloc Quebecois - have admitted to taking a puff or two as youths.

The fourth party leader, Joe Clark of the Progressive Conservatives, said he would decriminalize pot during his brief stint as prime minister in 1979-80. Clark's minority government was kicked out of office by a non-confidence vote before it could pass its pro-marijuana law.

Meanwhile, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, along with his Justice and Health ministers, has said he welcomes a debate on decriminalization. In fact, prior to the summer Parliamentary recess, all five parties in the Commons voted unanimously to establish a committee into the use of non-medical drugs. The committee is expected to look at the issues of decriminalization and legalization.

A Senate committee is already looking at the issue of illegal drugs. The chairman of that committee, Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin, is in favour of legalizing marijuana.

A third factor is the large amount of public support for legalizing pot. A Leger Marketing poll this past June, for instance, found that 46.8 per cent of Canadians were in favour of legalization. In the provinces of Quebec and British Columbia, more than 50 per cent were in favour.

Interestingly, a Canadian Press story on the poll focused on the fact that a majority of Canadians were not in favour of legalization. "What this poll suggest is that the government doesn't necessarily have a blank cheque," Jean-Marc Leger, president of Leger Marketing, was quoted as saying.

In the U.S., chances are high a reporter would focus on the high number of people advocating drug reform.

Drug reform advocates in Canada and the U.S. also focus on different aspects when asked about Ottawa's drug law reforms.

Canadian laws "are not as repressive as Sweden," Eugene Oscapella, a lawyer and founding member of the pro-reform group Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy, told me. "But we are far behind countries like Portugal, Spain, Italy and Belgium."

A new law in Portugal, which came into effect July 1, has decriminalized the use of all drugs, from cannabis to crack.

In contrast, Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the U.S.-based Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, fully praised Canada.

"The bottom line is that Canada is pulling away from the U.S. and moving towards the European model," he said in an interview.

These two quotes reveal a lot about how Washington and Ottawa handle the drug issue. For a U.S. citizen used to an insane anti-drug jihad, Canada is a breath of fresh air. But for a Canadian, who is accustomed to a more rational approach , the new medical marijuana law is only the beginning.

Alejandro Bustos is a 25-year-old journalist. He has worked for the Canadian Press as reporter/editor for both the Ontario and World Desks. In September, he will attend law school at the Univerity of British Columbia in Vancouver, while continuing to write journalist on the side.

América Gallops Toward Reform from North and South