Pot Bill Won't Survive Vote in Parliament

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Members of Parliament get a chance to inject common sense into Canada’s irrational drug policies today when Alliance MP Keith Martin’s bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana comes up for a free vote in the House of Commons.

It had to be an Alliance MP, of course, just as it had to be the virulently anti-Communist Richard Nixon who finally recognized the government of China. No one will accuse the Alliance of being soft on drugs.

Alas, given Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s opposition, and his aversion to dissent within caucus, the bill seems unlikely to pass. Thirty-two years after the LeDain Royal Commission studied the issue exhaustively and recommended legalizing marijuana, the Liberals will let a golden opportunity slip by.

That’s a shame. The 45,000 petty pot busts in Canada last year — arrests that overwhelming targeted young people — cost the criminal justice system about $150-million. They left thousands of youngsters with the stigma, and barrier to future employment, of a conviction. They diverted police from real crimes. They propelled hundreds of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens into transactions with criminals in their pursuit of pleasure.

It’s a classic example of government overreach, of the nanny state making decisions citizens can make.

Martin’s bill is a baby step. It would not fully decriminalize dope, but treat its possession in small quantities the way the law treats parking offences, with a maximum fine of $200 but no conviction. (“Decriminalize” is the euphemism for legalization favoured by timid advocates of common sense, mindful of the scorn heaped on people who voice plain, obvious truths on this issue.)

Rationally, marijuana products have no place on the list of banned substances, at least not on medical grounds. The renowned British medical journal the Lancet concluded that “moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill effect on health, and decisions to ban or to legalize cannabis should be based on other considerations.”

The Canadian Medical Association favours decriminalizing it. So does Conservative Leader Joe Clark. Britain is set to eliminate penalties for small quantities, at which point smoking pot will be a non-criminal offence in almost all of Western Europe — where, ironically, fewer young people use marijuana than their counterparts in America, spiritual headquarters of the war on drugs.

The case against continued criminal sanctions is iron clad. The tougher question is whether to apply the same logic to crack cocaine and heroin, whose use carries real harm.

For anyone willing to look rationally at that question, it quickly becomes apparent that treating the use of harmful drugs as a criminal matter causes far more harm than the banned substances themselves. A government that can’t bring itself to legalize pot possession obviously lacks the maturity, and the intellectual honesty, to tackle that one.

A friend proposes an elegant solution to the dual problem of Tantallon RCMP’s obsession with nudity and Halifax police’s inordinate fondness for strip-searching young women.Swap the two. Let Halifax cops cruise Crystal Crescent Beach, and let the Tantallon Mounties patrol raves. That way, Halifax police could tell bathers to, “take it off, take it all off.” Meanwhile the Mounties could order ecstatic dancers to, “Cover it up, sweetie.”

Everyone would be happier.

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