Wed Sep 4,10:02 PM ET By TOM COHEN, Associated Press Writer TORONTO - A Canadian Parliament committee has called for legalizing marijuana use by adults, increasing pressure on the government to shift drug laws far from the zero-tolerance policy of the neighboring United States. The report by the Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs released Wednesday recommended that criminal records for possession of marijuana should be erased, with the nation adopting a system that regulates marijuana in the same way that alcohol is regulated. It also called for immediate action on permitting eligible medical patients to legally obtain marijuana. "There is no good reason to subject the consumers of cannabis to the application of criminal law," Sen. Pierre Nolin of the Progressive Conservative party said. "In a free society as ours, it's up to the individual to decide whether to consume cannabis or not." The report emerged from months of hearings with Canadian and international experts, police and drug enforcement agencies and ordinary citizens. While not binding, it will force the Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien to formulate a response that explains what provisions it accepts or rejects and why. Under current law, marijuana possession is illegal in Canada, though police generally ignore individual use. The government last year passed regulations allowing eligible medical patients to grow and possess marijuana, but has yet to create a distribution network. Marijuana grown in Canada has become a major source for some U.S. markets, and anti-drug groups south of the border complain that liberalizing Canadian drug laws would increase access to illegal drugs in the United States. Nolin, chairman of the Senate committee, said the panel concluded no evidence existed that marijuana was a "gateway" drug leading to use of harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin. "Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public health issue," he said. David Griffin of the Canadian Police Association rejected those arguments in criticizing the report, saying it ignored scientific evidence that marijuana was harmful. "Drugs are not dangerous because they are illegal. Drugs are illegal because drugs are dangerous," he said. Another member, Colin Kenny of the Liberal Party, noted the 600-page report had unanimous support from the committee. "No one on the committee wants to see an increase in the use of cannabis," Kenny said. The government would avoid encouraging marijuana use, just as it refrains from encouraging alcohol consumption, but both should be an individual choice, Nolin said. Without directly mentioning the United States, he said the committee's recommendations would be compatible with policies of important allies and trade partners. "Our relationships with our friends are solid enough to work out the implications of what we are doing," he said. Canada already has a legal industry for hemp - cannabis cultivated with very low amounts of the chemical that produces the high sought by marijuana smokers - while the U.S. federal government prohibits hemp production. Eight U.S. states have taken some kind of step toward permitting the medicinal use of marijuana: California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada and Colorado. The U.S. Supreme Court ( news - web sites), however, ruled last year that there is no exception in federal law for people to use marijuana, so even those with state medical-exemptions could face arrest if they do.