Most Canadians in favour of changing pot laws

Most Canadians are opposed to the legal prohibition of marijuana, according to a new poll.

The Toronto-based Forum Research Inc. polling agency found that sixty-six per cent of Canadians are in favour of either decriminalization or legalization of cannabis, which is the most widely used illicit drug in Canada.

With the majority of Canadians in favour of less stringent pot laws, the Conservatives find themselves in the minority with their prohibition policies.

The NDP supports decriminalization, and the Liberals support legalization and regulation.

The Tories take a very different position, and actually made the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act stricter last November.

Under the new rules, obligatory six-month jail terms are now in effect for first-time offenders convicted of growing as few as six marijuana plants.

“If anything this will drive small time dealers and growers out of business, and give that business to the more serious organized criminal organizations,” said Donald MacPherson of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, an advocacy group based in Vancouver.

Police officers do have “a tremendous amount of discretion” over whether or not to charge someone in possession of pot, according to Michael Gendron of the Canadian Police Association.

“If you find a kid out on a Friday night with a joint in his hands, you’re probably not taking him to lock-up,” he said.

MacPherson said last year there were 61,000 cannabis possession incidents involving the police in Canada.

Many experts and advocates argue that marijuana should be decriminalized or even legalized, taxed, and regulated like tobacco or alcohol.

Stephen T. Easton is an economics professor at Simon Fraser University and a senior research fellow at the Fraser Institute.

He says if pot were legalized, much of what organized crime groups earn from selling cannabis now, would instead be made by the government through taxation.

Easton wrote a paper for the Fraser Institute in 2004 saying the government could earn about $7 per marijuana cigarette if it legalized and taxed them.

He says decriminalization doesn’t go far enough.

With decriminalization, the more people buy pot, the more money goes to organized crime. With legalization, organized crime would take a big hit, Easton says.

He says the cost of producing marijuana is low compared to the street value.

“It’s the low hanging fruit. If you take that away, it makes it more difficult for organized crime to gain revenue.”

MacPherson is also in favour of legalization.

“We advocate regulating [marijuana] within a public health framework, with no promotion, no advertising.”

It’s a public health issue. People are ingesting dangerous products every day in Canada.”

He says prohibition has created a robust black market run by unregulated growers and dealers, many of them involved with criminal organizations.

“It’s clearly not working,” he said.

MacPherson also says prohibition criminalizes pot users.

“That is absolutely unnecessary.”

Furthermore, he says the policy doesn’t even reduce cannabis use.

“We’ve seen just the opposite in North America – increase in production, increase in use, and decrease in price.”

Given the fact that demand for cannabis will never go away, MacPherson says we might as well regulate it to make it as safe as possible.

“We think a sane cannabis policy would actually begin to reduce demand because we would be able to have a much more intelligent discussion about the benefits and harms of using cannabis.”

He says there are many myths regarding marijuana, such as the claim that it’s a gateway drug, leading to harder narcotics.

“There’s zero evidence in the scientific literature that there’s any gateway effect.”

On the contrary, he says, when you put pot in the same marketplace that hard drugs are in, you associate them together, and create an artificial gateway.

Not everybody supports legalization though.

David Berner is the executive director of the Drug Prevention Network, an advocacy group based in Vancouver.

“We don’t for a moment believe that legalizing marijuana will remove the criminal traffic in this and other substances. Criminals are endlessly creative and they will certainly find new ways to profit from one of their favorite businesses,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Berner doesn’t like the idea of the government producing and selling cannabis.

“The thought of governments, who are notoriously inept at running the smallest enterprise, managing the public sale of marijuana is frightening.”

Berner acknowledges that not all pot users are abusers.

“We recognize that millions of people world-wide use marijuana much like millions of people drink alcohol – occasionally, moderately, socially and without dire serious consequences.

“However, there are also millions of at-risk addictive personalities for whom marijuana is either a gate-way drug or an addictive overused substance that negatively affects pretty much every waking moment.”

According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, cannabis can negatively affect mental and physical health.

Berner believes marijuana should be illegal, but only major suppliers and traffickers should face dire consequences.

“Prosecuting or jailing people for casual recreational use of marijuana doesn’t fit any standard of justice.”

Regardless of differing opinions, MacPherson is just happy there’s a dialogue going about how to treat cannabis.

“Up until now, it’s been sort of a heresy to open up that discussion. And now it’s legitimate.”

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