Psycho Active Politics: Marijuana, Science and the Politics of Change (Part 2)
“When I was a kid I inhaled frequently. That was the point.”
– U.S. President Barack Obama
In Part 1 of this series, I examined the history and political context for the criminalization of marijuana, the scientific basis for its use as a medicine, and the relationship between the pharmaceutical industry, media and medical profession in demonizing cannabis. This combination has undermined the scientific and popular understanding of the complexities of marijuana and vilified its users and supporters. Although things are changing fast in some respects, there remain some very real challenges to coming to a new consensus on what role marijuana should play medically and recreationally in Canada and other countries. Marijuana use has been on the increase worldwide despite broad policies of prohibition, and progressive politicians are pointing to this fact as proof of the ultimate long term failure of criminalizing weed as a serious legal strategy. And with exceptions for certain populations, it’s much less harmful than alcohol, cigarettes and most pharmacy drugs. Budget pressure, social acceptance and new science is forcing a large-scale international debate on the merits and concerns about popular marijuana use, health and self-determination. At the heart of the cannabis revolution is a tsunami of global forces such as internet connectivity, evolving social and moral boundaries and a younger generation that’s shaping politics and sharing information resources like no generation before it. A growing majority of people are demanding less restrictive laws and practices surrounding the world’s most popular psychoactive and medicinal plant.
This week in Part 2, I also examine the potential downside of marijuana use and the changing social and political climate around it heading into the federal election campaign in 2015. We are clearly in a period of stormy social and ideological change – with an increasingly wired and networked global village struggling for new freedoms, rights and opportunities. Another goal is to help shift the focus of the conversation about marijuana away from criminality and fear, to one where smart plant use and medicine are seen as a health and human right. And to conclude with a set of parameters that will help us address the issues more sensibly and scientifically. I also hope to do my part to re-think our understanding of and relationship to medicinal plants and encourage a less emotional consideration of the issues surrounding cannabis. The goal is to depoliticize the analysis and make the policy shift towards research into the costs and benefits of a more progressive national policy on cannabis.
True Patriot Love: Cannabis and the Evolution of Culture in Canada
In Canada, the political and legal status of marijuana has been and remains conflicted and confusing at best. Law enforcement is uneven, ineffective, and costly. Surveys now consistently conclude that the great majority of Canadians (around 70%) want weed to be legalized or decriminalized.
In 2003 the Liberal Party of Canada through public statements made by then Prime Minister Jean Chretien, began supporting a process to decriminalize marijuana. Unfortunately in the 2004 election, the Liberals won by a narrow minority and the electoral base for a decriminalization strategy was lost, overnight. It has not returned under 3 successive Harper governments. Just prior to this writing, the Conservative Government of Canada appears to be backpedaling on their longstanding position based on new research, Justin Trudeau’s auspicious pro-marijuana popularity, and the strong recommendation of the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs.
The questions we need to ask are these: How do we move forward and harvest the potential benefits while minimizing the risks of a more permissive national strategy on marijuana ? How do we better understand a plant that is used and beloved by a growing, thriving and diverse population around the world ? Study after study shows that marijuana is non-toxic to the body and has relatively few harmful qualities in adult populations if used wisely. They reveal a plant that demonstrates unparalleled medicinal applications in a broad range of illnesses. Knowing that, how do we bring political pressure to empower science and fund long-term research into the truth about marijuana and its place in a safe and free society ? I hope our answers will provide support for a new agenda: a framework for reducing the social costs and harm resulting from the current misdirected war on drugs, which most agree has been an abject failure.
The Medicine Doctors Won’t Prescribe
Medical marijuana as prescribed by a doctor, was legalized in Canada in 2001 but doctors are still reluctant to prescribe it for fear of retribution by their licensing medical associations, and a loss of associated benefits from a medical system based on industrial pharmacology. Ignoring overwhelming international research, the Canadian Medical Association’s current position is that there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove that its benefits outweigh any possible harm. As a result, marijuana is so professionally stigmatized that doctors almost never prescribe it except for HIV, spinal cord injuries, severe arthritis, cancer, chemotherapy survivors and the terminally ill. So, regardless of the letter of the law, the actual, practical medical right to the plant is simply not available in Canada at present for most people.
Shifting Crystals: The Politics of Marijuana, Money and Morals
Canada has an estimated 3 million regular pot users. In 2013, a joint effort by the Liberal Party of Canada and the Young Liberals of Canada, produced the policy paper entitled Legalization of Marijuana: Answering Questions and Developing a Framework. A bold, ground-breaking document, and first of its kind produced by a national federal party. The paper made recommendations which led party leader Justin Trudeau to announce that he would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, if he’s elected as Canada’s next Prime Minister.
By contrast, the Harper conservatives re-ignited the ‘war on drugs’ immediately upon coming to power in 2006. In the first six years under this ‘tough on crime’, neo-conservative government, police made 405,000 marijuana-related arrests, representing a 41% increase in arrests for pot possession during that period ! To date, approximately 1 million Canadians have been charged with marijuana possession, in spite of the fact that, during that same period, all crime including violent crime in Canada is dropping. Could it be that police have less of a mandate on the street, but in order to justify escalating crime and punishment budgets, the shift to marijuana offenses is assisting the Harper cons portray a ‘growing crime problem’ ? Not by a war on true crime, but by increasing police attention and budgets to a war on marijuana. All of this despite the trend throughout the world away from viewing marijuana as crime, and towards acknowledging its wide range of recreational and medicinal applications. B.C. marijuana activist Dana Larson says, without question, the answer is “yes”, as the statistics prove.
In particular, under the National Drug Strategy implemented by Harper in 2007, the Canadian Department of Justice is now the focus of marijuana policy implementation, a shift away from Health Canada. What this means is, instead of focusing on treatment, public education and health, the $528 million budget between 2012 and 2017 will be spent on enforcement, courts and jails. Additional hidden funds are applied to the enforcement activities of federal agents, RCMP and the use of the military in international ‘drug related’ affairs, causing escalating police, military and security budgets. The omnibus Safe Streets and Communities Act, passed in 2012, was intentionally hard-driven on crime and stiffer penalties, mandatory minimum jail sentences and a doubling of the maximum penalty to 14 years for trafficking pot. The view of the Conservatives has unfortunately been to equate criminal apprehensions with public safety. This ignores an important fact: that focusing on criminalization and enforcement rather than education, research and prevention is shortsighted, financially wasteful and does nothing at all to protect our children. The drug war also does nothing to increase affordable access to medicine for those suffering and in pain. It also fails to provide a more health-centred public education plan to make recreational cannabis use safer, rather than the social carnage of more prisons and police during a time of declining crime!
Weed in the Body Politic
The following briefly outlines some other points of interest informing pot politics within Canada:
- The Marijuana Party of Canada has been the leader in the fight to legalize weed but is a decentralized party with no constitution or by-laws and has no elected seats in Parliament at present.
- The Green Party has always supported legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis.
- After passing a resolution at their biennial policy convention in January of 2012, the Justin Trudeau-led Liberal Party of Canada has now promised legalization as an official platform position for the 2015 election. The Liberals further support strict marijuana regulation around age access and public consumption of marijuana. Trudeau has also famously admitted to smoking marijuana, in fact since being elected an M.P.
- In August of 2013, the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs endorsed a new police discretion to ticket rather than arrest and criminalize for small amounts of marijuana possession. They do not suggest decriminalization, however complicated as that position may become, as I will explore later.
- The Libertarian Party of Canada also supports the legalization of cannabis.
- The Thomas Mulcair New Democrats want cannabis decriminalized, but not legalized.
- The Bloc Quebecois supports the decriminalization of cannabis.
- According to the Huffington Post, “Two former B.C. premiers and four former B.C. Attorneys General agree with Vancouver, Victoria and five other municipal councils calling for legalizing and taxing marijuana”.
MONETIZING MARIJUANA: CANNA-BUSINESS, BUDGETS AND PUBLIC OPINION
Currently the polls in Canada suggest that the Trudeau Liberals are in a small but significant lead over both the Conservatives and the New Democrats heading into the election. In fact the strength of the marijuana issue in the upcoming election is such that even the forever-defiant Stephen Harper has now been forced to soften his position on the criminality of weed. In the days following the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs’ recommendation, Justice Minister Peter Mackay and the Cons are now “looking closely” at granting a non-criminal ticketing option to police officers for small amounts of marijuana possession. On the surface, this appears to be a potentially election-defining move towards decriminalizing marijuana. However on closer examination, the Conservative plan is fraught with problems, being labelled as reactionary, band-aid politics and predicting unfair law enforcement. This rapid flip-flop by Harper is conspicuous, to say the least. Critics warn that this is a law that will result in personality-driven, uneven application by law enforcement officers – leading to bias and injustice. Unless we make it clearly a crime or not, accountability for officers exercising such a broad discretion evenhandedly is impossible. And the law and people’s faith in such a knee-jerk, late-to-the-party strategy by the government, could be a thread of Harper’s unraveling in the next election.
Research Basis for Decriminalizing Marijuana in Canada
In a 2002 Canadian Senate committee report, entitled: Cannabis: Our Position for a Canadian Public Policy, our Senators made strong, clear recommendations to legalize marijuana and called for retroactive amnesty for those with marijuana offences. The Senators stated the following:
“Early drug legislation was largely based on a moral panic, racist sentiment and a notorious absence of debate. …We are able to categorically state that, used in moderation, cannabis in itself poses very little danger to users or to society as a whole.”
They went on in the Report to declare that the real harm is not in marijuana use itself, but in the unfair legal and social stigma and other consequences of the criminal penalties to those charged.
Even more surprising is that, prior to the 2002 Senate Report, compelling research to support a more progressive legal marijuana law was carried out and summarized in the 1972 LeDain Report. The report was based on extensive cross-country hearings and research into all forms of drug use and famously included John Lennon’s pro-marijuana testimony in hearings in Montreal. The LeDain Report concluded that the criminalization of marijuana had no scientific basis, but was equally clear that cannabis use by adolescents should be discouraged through education and regulation.
According to an extensive Canada-wide Angus Reid poll in 2012, 61% of Canadians between the ages of 34 and 50 think pot should be legal (57% for all ages polled), and 66% of Canadians believe marijuana will be legal within 10 years. According to an in-depth MacLean’s magazine article in June 2013, 68% of Canadians feel that the war on drugs is a complete failure. In the Angus Reid poll on which it was based, 64% of those polled in B.C., and 60% in Atlantic Canada support marijuana legalization. With respect to hard drugs like cocaine, heroin and ecstasy, the same poll reports that only 11% of Canadians favour legalization.
Some say decriminalizing is not enough. Aside from the ongoing possibility of uneven criminal charges being laid, and in addition to prescription medical users, Canada has 3 million dedicated social pot smokers. Advocates claim that organized crime will continue to serve their recreational needs unless we move to full legalization.
In May of 2013, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition released its omnibus report entitled Getting to Tomorrow. The Coalition report comes out strongly in favour of decriminalizing all currently illegal drugs similar to the policy direction in Portugal, Spain and other European countries. To the coalition, made up of interdisciplinary experts from the Simon Fraser Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction, the crime and punishment model of the Harper gang is an “overwhelming failure”, pointing to the fact that Canada has the highest percentage of marijuana users among teenagers of any country in the world. Under such a backward policy, they say Stephen Harper has thumbed his nose at public health and handed off the regulation of drug markets to organized crime.
By contrast, in countries like Germany, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands who have either decriminalized or legalized weed, the marijuana use amongst teenagers is between 30% and 50% LESS than in Canada! Ken MacQueen of MacLean’s states that Mason Tvert, an influential activist in Colorado’s successful legalization vote has proven this point: that it’s legalization, regulation, public education and strict proof-of-age requirements that have caused a significant, measurable decline in underage cigarette smoking in Canada and the U.S. stating, “We didn’t have to arrest a single adult for smoking a cigarette in order to reduce teen smoking. So why arrest adults to prevent teens from using marijuana ?”
A very, very good question … and one that should be asked of our elected representatives boldly and repeatedly, until the destructive crime and punishment model and the fictitious war on drugs is abandoned for a more effective, health-driven policy of taxation and regulation.
The legal status of marijuana and our commitment to the truth about the plant will be a pivotal campaign issue heading into the 2015 federal election. Prohibition is based on disinformation and bad science. The so-called war on drugs has been a complete failure and leaves marijuana use and regulation in the hands of organized crime.
Budget pressures, social acceptance and the unveiling of solid new science is at the heart of the international debate on the merits and concerns about marijuana use, health and self-determination. Extensive reports say that the real crime is charging people for marijuana use. So-called drug wars do nothing except declare war on our young people, leaving them more vulnerable to harm from over-use, dealers and the by-products of criminality.
A new networked generation is revolutionizing social and moral boundaries, sharing information and provoking a new era of participatory economics. The majority of people polled say, marijuana use is a matter of health and human rights and no longer accept that cigarettes and alcohol are legal while cannabis remains a crime. Recent polls and majority popular opinion heavily favours legalization, making marijuana policy an issue of increasing importance to market-savvy politicians in the upcoming federal election.
What’s needed is a positive new era of research, science-driven health policy and sustainable economic development at the heart of marijuana policy-making and legislation. New ‘green’ industries like cannabis and hemp, as medicine, social tonic, or as a new-age building material can form part of a successful, sustainable and thriving industry, allowing cannabis a new place of legitimacy as a valuable commodity and medicine. But only if we protect our children much better than the current, failing crime-and-punishment model. To do this, we will have to establish an effective multimedia public education program, rigid proof-of-age enforcement, and economic regulation to eliminate the street dealer. Looking forward, if science – and not fear – informs a more intelligent debate on marijuana policy, Canadian cannabis should find an equitable place in a safer, healthier and less criminalized world.