Pot papers

Positive flashback
Here’s a positive government bulletin from the drug war front: a high-ranking commission released a report urging the feds to stop arresting marijuana smokers. “We favour the abolition of the offence of simple possession,” reads the report. “We are strongly and unanimously of the opinion? that the simple possession of cannabis does not justify imprisonment in any circumstances.”

Even better, the report verifies almost every position held by pot activists.

Cannabis prohibition “encourages the development of an illicit market” the report notes, and thus “exposes people to other, more dangerous drugs, by forcing them to have contact with traffickers who handle a variety of drugs.” Not only does prohibition make buying pot more dangerous than it should be, marijuana misinformation in school actually opens kids up to future risks.”The treatment of cannabis undermines the credibility of drug education,” states the report. “The argument is that if the authorities have been so misleading about cannabis there is no reason to believe what they say about other drugs.”

Maintaining pot prohibition entails using “extraordinary methods of enforcement” that can easily lead to corruption, brutality and “considerable resentment,” especially by young people who face the brunt of pot laws. Such resentment “tends to bring the laws and police into disrepute” and “creates disrespect for law and law enforcement generally.”

After suggesting that police enforcement costs might be better spent elsewhere, the report concludes by urging the feds to repeal possession laws on pot and let people grow their own supply for personal use.

Wonderful, encouraging words.

Too bad they were ignored nearly three decades ago, when the LeDain Commission issued them.

25 years since LeDain

Formally known as The Report of the Canadian Government Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, the report was the result of months of investigation and hearings. The commission, headed by Gerald LeDain, issued an interim report in 1970 and a full report two years later. The commission’s recommendations were completely ignored.

The last few years has seen a resurgence of high-profile pot papers. Three in particular ? a Canadian Addiction Research Foundation (ARF) analysis of drug harms, a similar analysis by the French government, and a Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse decrim document ? all draw the same conclusions as the LeDain report. Namely, that marijuana is far from the demon weed prohibitionists claim it to be.

It remains unclear, however, if anyone in the federal government is paying attention to these pot-friendly papers. Pro-reform studies ? no matter how eloquent or well-done ? have “a long pattern of gathering dust,” points out activist and Canadian law professor Alan Young.

WHO censors ARF?

Such studies also have a tradition of generating intense controversy ? at least before they’re shelved by whatever governmental body commissioned them. Certainly the Addiction Research Foundation (ARF) of Ontario wasn’t quite anticipating they’d launch a firestorm when they agreed to write a research paper for the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) back in 1995.

Ironically, none of the conclusions in the ARF’s paper, “A Comparative Appraisal of the Health and Psychological Consequences of Alcohol, Cannabis, Nicotine and Opiate Use” are particularly startling.

Pot ? unlike booze ? doesn’t lead “to aggression or violence, at least in present-day developed societies,” states the paper. Unlike heroin, “there are no recorded cases of overdose fatalities attributed to cannabis.” Also, when potheads go cold turkey, they don’t suffer the same gruesome withdrawal syndromes associated with cutting back from alcohol, nicotine and heroin.

These unremarkable findings were submitted to the WHO, along with a bunch of other papers from drug policy organizations around the world. In 1997, the WHO, which is run under the auspices of the United Nations, published a summary document containing some of the research papers they’d received. Findings from “A Comparative Appraisal” were deleted from the final version under pressure from the American Government, leading the New Scientist magazine in Britain to cry censorship.

“Health officials in Geneva have suppressed the publication of a politically sensitive analysis that confirms what ageing hippies have known for decades: cannabis is safer than alcohol or tobacco,” read a New Scientist article in February of this year.

The media picked up on the New Scientist article and the ARF found themselves accused of writing a drug paper that was too radical for the prohibitionist United Nations.

The ARF ? which is now a division of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health ? has consistently denied that the UN or anybody else suppressed their pot paper. Sources at ARF indicate that the comparative analysis will in fact be published in December of this year.

The whole debate was intended to confuse the issue of whether the WHO had been involved in censorship or not. The missing pages of the WHO report, which show cannabis to be relatively harmless, are irrefutable evidence of UN censorship.

French find pot harmless

While the “was-it-censored-or-not?” debate was raging over the ARF’s paper, a commission in France was also heavily involved with drugs. A 10-member team lead by Bernard-Pierre Roques of Rene Descartes University of Paris, were entrusted by the French health ministry to examine the harms of various illegal substances. The panel analyzed each drug for harm ? to both user and society ? toxicity and addictiveness then placed each drug in a category, from most to least dangerous.

The commission, none too surprisingly, put heroin, cocaine and booze in the “most dangerous” category. In a middle category, the researchers placed speed, hallucinogens and tobacco. And in the category for least harmful, least addictive and least toxic drug: marijuana.

The study came out in late June, and so far, the French government hasn’t strained themselves to change their draconian drug laws to reflect the commission’s findings.

$400 million wasted

Nor have the Liberals rushed to institute the recommendations in “Cannabis Control in Canada: Options Regarding Possession.” Released in May, the latter was written by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and takes a fairly conservative line.

“There is little doubt that cannabis use adversely effects the public health and safety of Canadians,” reads the paper.

While going out of its way to point out marijuana’s perceived health risks (don’t drive and toke or smoke up while pregnant), the paper also offers reams of statistics damning pot prohibition.

“In 1995, there were a total of 63,851 drug offences under the Narcotic Control Act (NCA) or Food and Drug Act (FDA),” states the report, “of this drug offences total, 45,286 offences were cannabis offences, and of these 31,299 were cannabis possession offences.”

The paper estimates about 2,000 people are jailed every year in Canada for possessing pot – at a cost of 150 bucks a day to taxpayers. By adding up court, corrections and police costs, the CCSA researchers figure our country spends about $400 million a year trying to enforce unenforceable drug laws.

All this money might have just as well been spent on building Nancy Reagan statues, for the amount of good it has done convincing people to stop smoking pot.

“The current law prohibiting cannabis possession and trafficking appears to have had a very limited deterrent effect, yet it entails high social costs and diverts limited police resources from other pressing needs,” reads the CCSA paper.

The CCSA researchers outline several reform options, ranging from “devolving” pot laws to the provinces, diverting offenders from court to decriminalizing simple possession. In the end, the authors recommend reducing the offence “to a [non-criminal] civil violation” similar to a traffic ticket. Pot should be decriminalized, as it is in several US and Australian states, not to mention Germany, Holland, Belgium, Spain and Italy.

Can research bring decrim?

The CCSA’s conclusion is one that any objective reader of the ARF or the French health ministry’s reports would come to. So, does that mean we’ll see decrim soon, in both Canada and France? Not likely, says Pat Erickson, research scientist at ARF Division.

“These reports are important, but no politician [will read one]and say, ?Wow, marijuana’s not so harmful. Guess I’ll go change the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act,” she states. “Research in and of itself won’t have a direct impact.”

Positive pot-reports might not cause an overnight change in Canada’s drug laws, but they are helpful in more subtle ways. Besides influencing judges, pot studies can “build up a body of support” for any future decision by the government to reform marijuana laws, says Erickson.

The Shafer Commission

Back in 1972, the American Government’s Shafer Commission, led by former right-wing governor Raymond Shafer, released a report that said throwing pot smokers in jail was a counter-productive waste of time. This was not what President Richard Nixon, who wanted to use the report to back up his newly launched “War on Drugs” wished to hear. Nixon shelved the report, leaving it to pot-law activists to bring it to the public’s attention.

Keith Stroup, founder of the then struggling NORML (National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws) was one of the first activists to realize the Shafer Commission’s value.

“Armed with the (Shafer) Commission’s recommendation to legalize, Keith Stroup and NORML hit the road,” recounts Dan Baum in Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure. “Stroup arranged hearings before state legislatures throughout the country to discuss abolishing or at least reforming marijuana laws.”

From 1973 to 1978, eleven US states decriminalized marijuana, making minor possession punishable by a small fine. This never-repeated surge of decrim activity came in part because of NORML’s support for a high-brow pot study that otherwise would have been ignored.

“Good research and a bright politician can do a lot,” Erickson points out. We’ve got all the research, now where are the politicians?