general lack of common sense.
By Matthew Elrod
- Despite a complete lack of media coverage, the
review of Canada’s drug policies by the Standing Committee on Health quietly
continues. Committee meetings held last fall focused on Bill C-71, a bill
to crack down on tobacco by restricting advertising and event sponsorships,
but the Committee turned its attention back to drug policy last December.
Realistically, this review is a waste of time
which will not accomplish any changes to Canada’s drug policy. Committee
members are generally ignorant about the effects of illegal drugs, and
hostile towards suggestions that criminal prohibition is a bad policy.
There has been no cross-country travelling to hear public testimony as
originally promised, and the committee hearings have generally been rushed
What follows is a summary of testimony and committee meetings to
- Dr Kalant Disappoints
On December 3, the
Committee heard evidence presented by Professor Harold Kalant of the Addiction
Research Foundation. Those of you fortunate enough to have seen the CBC’s
November 27 Health Show on the medicinal use of cannabis may recognize
Dr Kalant as the “expert” who tarnished what was an otherwise excellent
program, by dismissing the medicinal value of cannabis and advocating instead
synthetic THC capsules known as Marinol.1
Dr Kalant’s testimony to the Standing
Committee was as disappointing as his appearance on the Health Show. Kalant
compared the effects of cannabis to cocaine, amphetamines, barbiturates
and alcohol, saying “the acuteness of perception, speed of reaction and
ability to monitor different sources of information at the same time are
impaired by cannabis just as they are by alcohol.”
Kalant brought up the
“antimotivational syndrome” myth, apparently unaware of studies conducted
by Duncan and Gold in 1982, which concluded that antimotivational syndrome
could be added to the “growing scrap heap of discarded marijuana myths.”
Though Kalant admitted that “this situation clears up if the person stops
smoking” he went on to say “in a few cases it does not clear up. In such
cases there’s good reason to believe there is some degree of brain cell
damage similar to what one sees in the severe, chronic alcoholic who suffers
irreversible brain changes.” Sigh.
continued in this way, hinting at “dependence syndrome,” “psychotic breakdown,”
“immune cell impairment,” “low testosterone levels” and “low sperm counts.”
Though he qualified his evidence with words like “depends,” “may,” “theoretically,”
and “evidence suggests” one can imagine the glazed eyes of the committee
members and the notes they were taking.
A Pause for Reflection
Dr Kalant concluded
his testimony by predicting that “if the use of cannabis becomes much more
widespread the number of people suffering significant health consequences
will go up correspondingly. It could conceivably become just as great a
problem as current problems with alcohol.”
Let’s just think about
this for a minute. According to the doctor’s own Addiction Research Foundation,
approximately 7000 Canadians die from alcohol consumption every year. Alcohol-related
traffic accidents kill another 1500. About 40,000 Canadians die from tobacco-related
illnesses annually. No one has ever died from a cannabis overdose and cannabis-related
traffic fatalities are statistically immeasurable. No matter how many people
use cannabis, any number times zero is zero. Even if every Canadian from
Vancouver to Halifax became a regular cannabis consumer, the health consequences
of cannabis use could never approach the damage done by alcohol and tobacco.
As the doctor stated
himself, “One doesn’t expect to see serious health effects in the person
who smokes pot occasionally, we’re talking here essentially about regular
At this time about
five percent of Canadians are occasional cannabis users. A mere one percent
of the population can be described as regular heavy users. By contrast,
about eighty-two percent of Canadians drink alcoholic beverages. If the
doctor believes that legal cannabis would become as popular as alcohol,
then we have to ask just which Canadians currently support cannabis prohibition?
Because cannabis can
be a substitute for alcohol, an increase in cannabis consumption would
likely result in a decrease in alcohol-related illness, fatalities, violence
and accidents. Perhaps Dr Kalant will make the same doomsday predictions
when he appears as the Crown’s star witness against Christopher Clay’s
upcoming constitutional challenge. Dr Lester Grinspoon would have a field
Eugene Explains, Szabo Stews
The Committee meeting
of February 11 also yielded some fascinating testimony. Eugene Oscapella,
appearing as a representative of the Canadian Criminal Justice Association,
presented a video excerpt from the CBC program on drug policy, David Suzuki’s
The Nature of Things.
Committee members seemed to appreciate
the chance to watch TV and hopefully took advantage of Oscapella’s offer
to provide each of them with a recording of the entire program. Oscapella
once again made a compelling plea for the Committee to “examine in a truly
non-partisan manner the many possible alternatives to the criminal prohibition
of drugs.” A nice idea, but don’t hold your breath Eugene.
Committee member Paul
Szabo repeated an earlier attack on Oscapella, saying that Oscapella “didn’t
have the guts” to tell the Committee what he stood for. Szabo does not
have the brain cells to comprehend Oscapella’s position. No doubt Szabo
thinks Oscapella stands for cocaine vending machines in nursery schools.
Szabo, seemingly suffering from a loss
of short-term memory, accused Oscapella of “offering no suggestions” as
to what alternatives the Committee might explore. Fortunately, Mr Oscapella
was able to jar Szabo’s foggy memory by drawing his attention to a binder
he had with him, containing about 400 pages of documentation on alternatives.
Oscapella also reminded Szabo that he,
Oscapella, had assisted in the development of proposals that would have
amended Bill C-8, had such amendments ever been seriously considered.
Tolerance in Dispute
presented by the eloquent Jean-Claude Bernheim, President of the Ligue
Antiprohibitioniste du Quebec, seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Paul Szabo asked Bernheim
the following loaded, long-winded and poorly phrased question, “if young
people were told that drugs, which are today prohibited as illegal substances,
are all of a sudden legal to use, and that the government will provide
them safely, cheaply, etc, so that there’s a harm reduction in attitude,
do you have an opinion as to whether or not you think the use of drugs
by young people would increase or decrease?”
Bernheim adroitly cited the Dutch experience
with cannabis tolerance that resulted in a brief increase in cannabis use
and a steady decline of all recreational drug use thereafter. Evidently
Szabo has not studied Dutch drug policy.
Martin maybe Seeing the Light
On the bright side,
Reform MP and Committee member Keith Martin seems to be coming to his senses.
In a February appearance on CBC Newsworld’s Ralph Benmergui Show, Martin
said that “marijuana is clogging up our court system, wasting our police
officers’ time, so let’s decriminalize it.” Though Martin shows more compassion
for the court system than the cannabis users clogging it up, the evidence
presented before the Committee may be sinking in.
Martin continued “This is not a moral
issue, this is a health issue.” Overlooking the immorality of incarcerating
cannabis users, Martin’s apparent change of heart is encouraging.
A Fistful of Dollars
Following the compassionate
but hurried testimony of Rachell Bard and Mary Ellen Jeans of the Canadian
Nurses Association, the February 11 meeting became a partisan bickering
match between the Committee members.
Chairman Roger Simmons reminded the Committee
that, due to the control of the Committee budget by Reform MP Grant Hill,
a planned regional meeting in Newfoundland had been cancelled. The Chairman
observed that the alternate plan of flying the east coast witnesses to
Ottawa would cost more than transporting the Committee members to Newfoundland.
Reformer Keith Martin
recommended the east coast witnesses submit their evidence on paper to
save taxpayers the transportation costs. So much for a “hearing.” Liberal
Joseph Volpe agreed with Martin, saying that after the Committee had been
given three or four weeks to read the submissions they could gather to
discuss the evidence.
Said Volpe, “We used
to do that at university, and I think it’s a great idea, but we used to
finish that off with a test.” Volpe may be on to something. How about a
timed comprehension test on the report of the Le Dain Commission and the
Coroner’s Report into Illicit Narcotic Overdose Deaths in British Columbia?
We’d happily publish the test results in Cannabis Canada.
by what he called Grant Hill’s “nickel and diming,” Chairman Simmons remarked,
“It gets to the point where I can tell you how to save all the money. Let’s
have no hearings. Let’s go home.”
It’s odd that the Committee
should suddenly become so concerned about wasting public funds, especially
considering that more is spent on prohibition enforcement every hour than
the Committee could spend in a year. Chairman Simmons recognized this absurdity
saying “This is such a farce, this hypocrisy about saving money.” Canadian
drug policy is certainly hypocritical, but my dictionary defines a farce
as, “a comedy marked by humour and extravagant wit.” The Committee’s performance
is what playwrights call a tragedy.
Chairman Simmons summed
it all up with the eloquent statement “It’s so full of hypocrisy I could
vomit.” Funny he should mention that. The war on drugs is so full of hypocrisy
I sometimes feel nauseous. I would recommend the Chairman smoke a joint
to settle his stomach, but in Canada even making that recommendation can
get you arrested.
The Committee met again
on February 18 to hear evidence from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Concerns
Canada, the Council on Drug Abuse and Parents Against Drugs. Unfortunately
the transcript of this meeting was not available at the time this article
was written. As of February 21 the Committee had not scheduled any more
- For more info
For more information contact Committee Clerk Pierre Rodrique,
c/o Standing Committee on Health, 6th Floor, 180 Wellington St, House of
Commons, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A6; phone (613) 992-1775;
Committee Chair Roger Simmons can be reached by email at
The Committee’s World Wide Web homepage is at http://www.parl.gc.ca/cgi-bin/committees/
The Health Show transcript can be found on the Internet at
fax (613) 996-1626.
1 Marinol has many serious drawbacks. A patient
taking three capsules a day must spend over $5,000 to use the drug for
one year. Because Marinol enters the bloodstream slowly, it yields lower
THC concentrations per dose than cannabis. Bioavailability of THC when
inhaled is 20% versus 6% when ingested. Oral THC absorption is erratic
and it is much more difficult for patients to titrate their own dose. Marinol
does not contain cannabidiol, the cannabinoid which ameliorates the unpleasant
side effects of pure THC. Finally, swallowing and keeping down Marinol
capsules is problematic for AIDS and chemotherapy patients suffering from