Fredericton (CUP)—Want to get high? With the Liberal Party of Canada adding marijuana legalization to their platform last year, along with the recent legalization for recreational use in Washington state and Colorado, it looks like a lot of people do.
Decades ago, many thought marijuana was the devil’s drug—which would cause whoever uses it to turn into a sinful, psychotic, promiscuous junky—as seen in the 1936 American propaganda film Reefer Madness. However, these recent events show the culture around cannabis has changed.
“I think it’s shifting to the opposite end of Reefer Madness,” Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC) says. “I think people are waking up to say that continuing to prohibit this substance is clearly not in the interest of people; it’s not in the interest of law enforcement.”
MacPherson says the CDPC believes there is a need for regulation of marijuana through a public health approach, and that doing so would allow a more honest discussion on the benefits and the harms of it. He says, though, too much of anything can be problematic, and new research is shedding new light on cannabis, especially in the medical field.
“The growing body of research shows that there are clear benefits to cannabis,” MacPherson says. “The research coming out of the medical cannabis area is growing at a great rate. It’s showing cannabis is useful for a number of conditions where existing pharmaceutical products may not be working for an individual.”
MacPherson also says marijuana prohibition makes unnecessary criminals—especially out of young people—and the criminalization of cannabis smokers doesn’t solve the issue of organized crime.
Julie Dingwell, executive director of AIDS Saint John, says the criminalization also prevents people who are having trouble with a substance to seek help, since they feel stigmatized and marginalized by society.
“I think if we look at what’s been happening in different countries around the world, Portugal for instance, when we take the criminal aspect away, people who have serious addictions and for whom abuse is the problem, they seek treatment,” Dingwell says.
She also says marijuana criminalization is actually fueling the market of large crime.
“I think it’s time we realize that all we really do is fuel an underground economy—a black market —a very lucrative market for big crime, and we don’t have to do that,” she says. “We can decide to do things differently, because we have evidence that strongly suggests we should do things differently.”
Dingwell believes that criminalization doesn’t solve one of the issue of drugs in general.
“We lock people up, instead of trying to decide what the bigger issues are. If we’re going to look at the bigger issues of drugs, then perhaps instead of criminalization, we could be looking at things like treatments,” she says.
Attitudes definitely have changed since Reefer Madness. Dingwell says, today, marijuana is a norm for many people and the intense fear around it has disappeared. She says the traditional scare-tactics are not working anymore, especially on youth.
“Fear mongering just doesn’t work,” Dingwell says. “It just isn’t the way to talk to people about being safe.”
Marijuana has been illegal in Canada since 1923, and with a few failed attempts for decriminalization, it’s clear marijuana legalization won’t happen overnight. David Coon, the leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick, said legalization in Canada would require a change in federal government. He argues that legalization under the current Conservative government won’t happen.
“[The current federal government is] very rigid in their thinking,” Coon says. “The other part of the whole drug story of course…is addiction needs to be treated as a health issue, not as a criminal issue. [Stephen Harper] is so rigid around any of these issues. There’s been, to my understanding, quite a struggle on support, federally, for needle exchanges and safe injection sites and so on. He seems to be eager to criminalize everything,” Coon says. “So I think [regarding the legalization of] marijuana, you’re not going to see him budge.”
The Gre en Party’s platform includes marijuana legalization, which involves putting regulations in place regarding its production. Coon says the party would also develop a taxation rate that’s similar to what exists for tobacco, and would require it to be sold through licensed establishments, similar to liquor stores. The money made from its taxation would go towards funding public services.
He thinks if the federal government legalized cannabis, it would probably be done in two steps. He says the government would likely decriminalize it first, which would allow them to consult the public and work out the already existing issues with medical marijuana. Then the government would put plans in place to pursue legalization.
According to Statistics Canada, in 2011, there were 61,406 reported cases of marijuana possession in Canada. There were 16,548 reported cases of production, and trafficking. This make a total of 77,954 marijuana related cases.
A poll released last year by Toronto-based Forum Research Inc., 66 percent of Canadians are in favour of the legalization or the decriminalization of marijuana, with only 20 percent of people thinking laws should be left as they are.
“It’s becoming a bit of a joke that we can’t get beyond this point,” said MacPherson. “The public is so far ahead of the politicians.”