More MS news articles for May 2001

Police officers oppose easing marijuana law

Simple possession of 'gateway drug' should remain a crime, association argues

Monday 28 May 2001
Janice Tibbetts
The Ottawa Citizen

Canada's police officers will counter a growing movement to decriminalize marijuana by making a public call today for possession of the "gateway drug" to remain a criminal offence.

The Canadian Police Association, which will make its pitch to a Senate committee on illicit drugs, is at odds with the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs and the RCMP, which both endorse decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The police association, in a written brief to be presented to the committee, decries the "weakening perceptions of risk of harm in drug use and the weakening moral disapproval of drug use."

The association, which represents Canada's 30,000 officers, makes no distinction between decriminalization and legalization, unlike other police organizations.

Those groups oppose legalization, but believe possession should merit a penalty similar to a traffic ticket rather than a criminal record.

"The costs of legalization will be astronomical," warns the police association.

"As legalization and permissiveness will increase drug use and abuse substantially, the costs of health care, prevention, productivity loss and enforcement will increase proportionately."

The association will also hold a press conference today in Ottawa to urge the government to exercise leadership by showing staunch opposition to more liberal drug laws.

Until now, the Senate committee, which was charged late last year to undertake a two-year examination of Canada's drug laws, has mainly heard evidence supporting decriminalization from witnesses who maintained there has been scant evidence of health hazards or increased usage in countries that have wiped marijuana possession from their criminal codes.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal also kicked off debate outside the hearings in an editorial two weeks ago calling on the government to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

All five political parties in the House of Commons have agreed to strike a committee to examine the prospect, and Tory leader Joe Clark has added his voice to the decriminalization call.

But Justice Minister Anne McLellan has maintained her longstanding position that she is open to debate on the issue, but has no plan to drop possession from the Criminal Code.

The police association, which disputes claims that there is no dependency potential in marijuana, asserts that there is no such distinction as "hard drugs" and "soft drugs" and that marijuana is a starter drug for other drug addictions.

"Marijuana is internationally recognized as the gateway drug for other drug use," says the submission, to be presented by executive officer David Griffin.

"Risk factors for marijuana dependency are similar to those for other forms of drug abuse and much higher than those for alcohol."

The association then goes on to list health and social problems arising from smoking the drug, ranging from respiratory damage to memory loss, psychiatric problems and poor performance at school and work.

The warning of health risks comes after the Canadian Medical Association Journal said there are "minimal negative" health risks when marijuana is used in moderation.

The Canadian Association of Police Chiefs and the RCMP both went on public record two years ago saying they support decriminalization of possessing small amounts of pot. But they cautioned that their endorsement was conditional on introduction of new government initiatives for drug prevention, education and treatment.

The police chiefs want the law softened so officers would have the option of ticketing first-time offenders who are caught with 30 grams or less, sparing them a criminal record. The chiefs argue it could free up police resources to tackle more serious crimes.

Both organizations, however, are against outright legalization.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal, in its editorial, detailed the legal and social fallout of continuing to criminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, saying the law resulted in 31,299 convictions in 1995.

In the past 30 years, it is estimated that about 500,000 Canadians have amassed criminal records for marijuana possession.