The Canadian House of Commons Special Committee on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs recommended this week that Canada decriminalize the possession and cultivation of up to 30 grams of cannabis, that safe injection sites for intravenous drug users be allowed to open, and that heroin be made available by prescription. Combined with a September report from a Canadian Senate special committee that called for legalization of cannabis and recent pronouncements from Justice Minister Martin Cauchon (see following story), the House committee report provides the latest and clearest indication yet that Canada is on the verge of decriminalizing cannabis possession and cultivation -- at least on a small scale.
Although the committee found that "smoking any amount of marijuana is unhealthy, because of its high concentration of tar and benzopyrene," it also noted that "the consequences of conviction for possession of a small amount of cannabis for personal use are disproportionate to the potential harm associated with that behavior." Thus the committee recommended that "the possession of cannabis continue to be illegal and that trafficking in any amount of cannabis remain a crime," but also that "the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Health establish a comprehensive strategy for decriminalizing the possession and cultivation of not more than 30 grams of cannabis for personal use." The committee added that such a scheme should also include prevention and education programs emphasizing the risks of cannabis use, especially for young people, and development of a means of enforcing laws against driving while impaired by a drug.
Under current Canadian law, small-time cannabis possessors face up to six months in prison. Under a proposal studied by the committee, that would be replaced by a ticket and escalating fines, with no criminal record.
The committee report on cannabis was not without dissent. The rightist Canadian Alliance, whose British Columbia Member of Parliament Randy White sat on the committee, denounced the 30 gram limit as too high, arguing that it would facilitate drug trafficking. A five gram limit would be more appropriate, White told reporters. At the same time, New Democrat MP Libby Davies said the recommendations did not go far enough. "It's still basically leaving the possession of cannabis as illegal," Davies told the Winnipeg Free Press. "Any trafficking would still be illegal, so it's still leaving in place all the harms from prohibition."
Eugene Oscapella of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy (http://www.cfdp.ca) also felt the committee didn't go far enough. "With the proposed decriminalization, it is not clear if the police will still be able to kick your door down, throw you up against the wall, arrest you, and then write you a traffic ticket," he told DRCNet. "Also, the 30 gram limit for cultivation seems unworkable, especially when the police weigh the entire plant. It's pretty hard to find a mature marijuana plant weighing less than 30 grams," he said.
"The recommendations on cannabis are better than nothing," Oscapella conceded. "It would absolve people from getting criminal records, but it may also widen the net. And it still doesn't address the fundamental issues of the role of prohibition in creating a black market, with all of its associated problems."
The House of Commons committee issued its report in two stages this week, citing fears that the recommendations on cannabis would detract attention from its recommendations on other drug issues. (The eruption of stories about decrim in the Canadian press this week certainly proved the committee right.) The committee delayed the cannabis recommendations until Thursday, while on Monday it released the sections of its report dealing with harder drugs. The committee was equally controversial on that subject. It called for the establishment of safe injection sites where intravenous drug users could shoot-up in a healthy, supervised environment. "People are using drugs," explained committee chair Paddy Torsney, MP of the ruling Liberal Party. "Let's deal with the health problem. They're somebody's brother or sister, and they're deserving of our care," she told Reuters.
Based on the principles of harm reduction, the proposal would allow drug users to bring their own drugs to a room where they can inject without fear of police persecution under the supervision of medical personnel. The committee found that such sites reduce the rates of hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS and overdose deaths. The Ministry of Health has already moved to create guidelines for pilot safe injection site programs, and indications are that Vancouver will have a government-approved site in place within a few months.
If the Canadian Alliance's Randy White didn't like decrim, he was even more appalled at safe injection sites. White told Reuters (and anyone else who would listen) that the sites constituted not harm reduction, but "harm extension." The Canadian Police Association also weighed in against the sites. "Our concern is we're sliding down a slippery slope to the point where it won't be long that we'll be hearing calls for dispensing drugs in those sites as well," association spokesman David Griffin complained to Reuters.
Maybe sooner than he fears. The committee also recommended that proposed clinical trials "in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal to test the effectiveness of heroin-assisted treatment for drug-dependent individuals resistant to other forms of treatment be implemented and that these trials incorporate protocols for rigorous scientific assessment and evaluation."
With the House of Commons committee report, Canada appears that much closer to enacting substantive harm reduction programs for hard drugs and decriminalization of marijuana. Now both houses of parliament have spoken clearly and eloquently for reform of the drug laws, and the governing Liberal Party appears ready to act.
This article touched on only a handful of the committee's 41 recommendations. To view the report online, visit http://www.parl.gc.ca/InfoComDoc/37/2/SNUD/Studies/Reports/snudrp02/08-toc-e.htm -- Appendix A has the complete list of committee recommendations.
Mainstream media reports:
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
CBC interviews with US officials
John Walters and Robert Maginnis