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Senators High on Legalizing Marijuana

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Senators high on legalizing marijuana

By David Vienneau – Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau Chief

OTTAWA – Unlike U.S. President Bill Clinton, Quebec ProgressiveConservative Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin inhaled.

But Nolin still didn’t get high.

“I once in my life smoked hashish when I was in junior college,” Nolin, 45,recalled in an interview. “I don’t know why I didn’t follow up on that.Maybe it was the cost.”

But the failure to get a buzz has not prevented Nolin and other Tory andLiberal senators from doing what MPs were afraid to do – propose thatpossession of small amounts of marijuana and hashish should no longer beillegal.

The senators strongly emphasize they are not endorsing personal drug use.They simply say that with hundreds of thousands of Canadians continuing touse marijuana and hash illegally, it is time to re-evaluate how Canadadeals with drug use.

They say the numbers prove the punitive approach has failed and it shouldbe abandoned in favor of a modern model that stresses education, preventionand treatment.

Their opinions are relevant because the senators sit on the Senate’s legaland constitutional affairs committee, which is studying federal legislationthat would retain the criminal sanctions for personal drug use.

“I am in favor of decriminalizing marijuana.” New Brunswick Liberal SenatorRose-Marie Losier-Cool, 57, said.

“We must look at this very seriously. The approach we have now is criminal,it’s punitive. Maybe it’s a health approach we should be taking a seriouslook at. The punitive approach has not worked and the the problem is stillthere.”

Bill C-8 would replace the Narcotic Control Act with the ControlledSubstance and Abuse Act.

It was approved by the House of Commons despite intense opposition from arange of critics, including the Canadian Police Association, the CanadianBar Association and the Addiction Research Foundation.

The police association recommended the penalty for possession of smallamounts of marijuana or hashish be a $100 ticket.

As drafted, the bill would have doubled penalties for simple possession ofmarijuana to $2,000 and included the option of a maximum one-year jailterm. It would also have boosted the penalties for second offences.

That punitive section of the bill outraged a number of Liberal MPs and,after more than a year of internal bickering, it was amended to retain theexisting penalty: a $1,000 fine or six months in jail. Some MPs wanteddecriminalization but the government wouldn’t budge.

The legislation must be approved by the Senate before it can become law.

Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs, 52, who chairs the Senate committee andmust remain neutral, predicts Bill C-8 might be amended and returned to theCommons for a second look.

The other Senators on the committee who favor decriminalization includeLiberal Philippe Gigantes, 72, and Tories Richard Doyle, 73, and DuncanJessiman, 73. Those who have not publicly pronounced are Liberals JohnBryden, 56, Lorna Milne, 60, and Landon Pearson, 55.

None has come out against such a move.

“Senators were much more interested in a harm-reduction model of drugcontrol in this country than they were in a punishment model,” Carstairssaid. “That is where almost all the senators are coming from.

“I think there will certainly be amendments, but if we don’t makeamendments certainly there will be a strong report out of the Senateindicating to the House of Commons that this is not good enough.”

After listening to witnesses, committee members are troubled by aspectsrelated to maintaining criminal sanctions for possession, including:

  • The law is being unevenly applied. Witnesses from Vancouver and Torontosaid police in those cities ignore simple possession charges because theyhave more serious crimes to deal with, while smaller cities and rural areasstill vigorously enforce the law.
  • Alcohol and tobacco – the use of which is legal – cause more health andsocial problems than marijuana or hash use.

“Cannabis is much less lethal than cigarettes and alcohol,” Nolin said,noting the committee was told as many as three million Canadians usemarijuana and hashish. “Are we into prohibition because it’s somewhat of adogma that we don’t question and everybody else is doing it?”

  • Young people who are convicted of using so-called soft drugs arestigmatized with criminal records that could affect their future employmentor travel outside Canada.

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