The Canadian Medical Association (CMA), the country's largest and most influential physicians' group, told parliament on Monday that simple marijuana possession should be removed from the criminal code and made only a ticketable offense. The doctors urged, however, that such a move take place only within a broad strategy aimed at reducing drug abuse and marijuana consumption in particular.
In a brief presented to the House of Commons Special Committee on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, which is undertaking a review of Canadian drug policy, the doctors' association said: "The CMA believes that resources currently devoted to combating simple marijuana possession through the criminal law could be diverted to public health strategies, particularly for youth."
The CMA took pains to make clear that it did not condone marijuana use, given its "adverse effects" on health. Moreover, it also noted that it "wishes to make clear than any change in the criminal status of marijuana must be done so with the recognition that marijuana is an addictive substance and addiction is a disease." The doctors called for a "National Cannabis Cessation Policy" to reduce marijuana use and urged close scrutiny of the relationship between marijuana and traffic accidents.
Despite its disdain for the herb, the CMA still argued that "the severity of punishment for the simple possession and personal use of cannabis should be reduced with the removal of criminal sanctions." In addition to citing the reallocation of drug control resources such a move would allow, the CMA also cited the deleterious effects of unnecessary criminal records on marijuana offenders.
The CMA also testified that drug addiction is a condition better handled through the public health system than the criminal justice system. "Addiction should be regarded as a disease and therefore individuals suffering with drug dependency should be diverted, whenever possible, from the criminal justice system to treatment and rehabilitation," CMA president Dr. Henry Haddad told the committee.
The CMA called for a comprehensive national drug strategy by the federal government in conjunction with provinces and localities to combat drug abuse. That strategy should shift from an emphasis on law enforcement to one of reducing drug use through prevention, education and treatment, the CMA said.
"The vast majority of resources dedicated to combating drugs are directed toward law enforcement activities," said Haddad. "Governments need to rebalance the distribution and allocate a greater proportion of these resources to drug treatment, prevention and harm reduction programs."
Haddad was joined at the hearing by Dr. William Campbell, head of the Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine (CSAM), who endorsed the CMA position and then went a step further. The possession of small amounts of all drugs -- not just marijuana -- should be decriminalized, said Campbell. "Addiction is a disease and we support public policies that would offer treatment and rehabilitation in place of criminal penalties for persons with psychoactive substance dependence and whose offence is possession of a dependence-producing drug for their own use."
Campbell was merely reiterating the formal position of CSAM, which was ratified late last month. "Drug possession for personal use must be decriminalized and distinguished from the trafficking or illegal sale/distribution of drugs to others that must carry appropriate criminal sanctions," the organization decided.
The Special Committee on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, which was chartered a year ago to review and recommend changes to Canadian drug policy, has been holding hearings in recent months and has heard from experts from across Canada and around the world. The committee is expected to issue its report in August.
The CMA submission to Parliament is available online at: http://www.cma.ca/staticContent/HTML/N0/l2/where_we_stand/political/cannabis.pdf
The complete CSAM National Drug Policy Statement may be viewed online at: http://www.csam.org