"Mr. Justice Minister, let's decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use."
That's the final line -- and the bottom line -- of this week's editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Written in response to Health Canada's announcement last month of new medical marijuana regulations, the editorial called Health Canada's move "a step in the right direction," but said "a bolder stride is needed."
"Our view is that the government should probably take a little bit more bold step and decriminalize it," the journal's editor, Dr. John Hoey, told the Toronto Star. "It turns out that it is really quite an innocuous drug, probably with the exception of tars and things, which then make it similar to tobacco," the editorialist explained.
In the editorial, Hoey elaborated: "The possession of small quantities for personal use should be decriminalized. The minimal negative health effects of moderate use would be attested to by the estimated 1.5 million Canadians who smoke marijuana for recreational purposes. The real harm is the legal and social fallout. About half of all drug arrests in Canada are for simple possession of small amounts of marijuana: about 31,299 convictions in 1995 alone. Many lead to jail terms or fines, and all result in that indelible social tattoo: a criminal record. This means that for anyone who's ever been caught with a stash in his or her pocket, the question 'Have you ever had a criminal conviction?' during a job application or medical school interview can force higher aspirations to go up in a puff of smoke.
"The decriminalization of marijuana possession for personal use does not mean making marijuana 'legal' or letting it be sold in every schoolyard. It does mean that possession of small amounts for personal use would become a civil offense, like a traffic violation, not a criminal one. The provisions of Canada's Contraventions Act make this a relatively simple legislative task."
Hoey told the Star he expected no negative fallout from Canadian doctors, which is not surprising given that the Canadian Medical Association, the journal's publisher, has already endorsed the decriminalization of marijuana.
"My hunch is that doctors would generally agree, and certainly public health doctors, who would worry about this, that the harms of criminalizing marijuana use far outweigh the harms of smoking a bit of marijuana," Hoey said.
Hoey also used the editorial pulpit to urge his fellow physicians to move quickly on medical marijuana. "About 400,000 Canadians use cannabis for medical reasons," he wrote. "Professional organizations such as the CMA must move quickly to issue guidelines for physicians who, increasingly, will be asked for advice by their patients."
(Visit http://www.cma.ca/cmaj/vol-164/issue-10/1397.asp to read the editorial online.)