Can Canada Can Cannabis Canards?

American college students already head north of the border for drinks and lap dances. Could they soon be going up to Canada to smoke pot as well?

This week the Canadian Senate's Special Committee on Drugs issued a 600-page report calling for the legalization of marijuana. The document may simply join the dusty pile of calm, measured drug policy assessments that governments have routinely ignored for the last century. But as the work of a legislative committee (albeit one drawn from a chamber whose members do not face election), it is remarkable both for debunking canards about marijuana and for recommending bold changes in the law.

Among other things, the report concludes that "cannabis itself is not a cause of other drug use" or of crime; that "most users are not at-risk users" liable to addiction; that "cannabis alone, particularly in low doses, has little effect on the skills involved in automobile driving"; and that "cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol." In language strikingly similar to what one hears from American critics of the war on drugs—although almost never, as in this case, from members of the national legislature—the committee says "the continued prohibition of cannabis jeopardizes the health and well-being of Canadians much more than does the substance itself." It also argues that prohibition "undermines the fundamental values set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

The report's policy proposals, unanimously endorsed by the committee, are courageous as well. Rather than merely recommend that the government stop arresting pot smokers, as England has more or less done, or tolerate retail marijuana sales while keeping the business technically illegal, which is the policy in the Netherlands, the committee calls for a system in which "persons over the age of 16" could "procure cannabis and its derivatives at duly licensed distribution centers." This sounds similar to the arrangement envisioned by reformers in Nevada, except that the minimum age there would be 21. The committee recommends that growing marijuana for personal use also be permitted and that Canadians convicted of pot possession receive amnesty.

"We have come to the conclusion that [marijuana] should be regulated by the state much as we do for wine and beer, hence our preference for legalization over decriminalization," the committee says. "Whether or not an individual uses marijuana should be a personal choice that is not subject to criminal penalties." It's a sad commentary on the ossified state of drug policy in the United States that Canada—home of socialized health care, strict gun control, and speech restrictions—has something to teach us about personal choice.

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