Decriminalize Marijuana, Vancouver Mayor Says

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Nov 10, 2001.

  1. By Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun
    Source: Vancouver Sun

    Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen added his name Wednesday to the list of those who believe that marijuana should be decriminalized. But he told a special Senate committee reviewing Canada's anti-drug laws that hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin need a different approach.
    Owen was one of the few speakers who told the committee he doesn't believe the "war on drugs" has been lost. The city, its police force, social workers and others strongly believe in a comprehensive drug policy that revolves around prevention, treatment, enforcement and harm reduction, he said.

    But he admitted in an interview that policy doesn't necessarily apply to soft drugs such as cannabis, and he told the committee that legalization of such drugs is likely inevitable.

    Owen said in the interview that he personally favours decriminalization of marijuana, but supports the police department's program of busting marijuana-growing operations, given that laws exist that must be enforced.

    "It is not if we will do it [decriminalize marijuana], it is when will we do it," he said.

    "I think the public wants to have public discussions about soft drugs and hard drugs separately. I support that public discussion."

    His comments struck a chord with committee member Senator Pat Carney.

    "Philip Owen hit the nail on the head when he said there were two debates that need to happen, one around soft drugs and the other around hard," she said during a break.

    The common theme of many of the speakers -- who included doctors, drug abusers and lawyers -- is that drug abuse is largely a personal medical and societal problem, rather than a criminal one.

    Although the committee is interested in the issues around hard drugs, it was formed with the intent of reviewing Canada's anti-drug laws, particularly as they apply to cannabis. The committee is expected to table its report before the Senate in August 2002.

    Dr. Mark Tyndall, director of epidemiology at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, told the senators there was no better example of the conflicting problems facing abusers than what happens at his agency.

    The centre has been following 1,400 injection drug abusers in the Downtown Eastside since 1996.

    Most are on some form of social assistance. Almost all have now tested positive for hepatitis C. Nearly half are HIV-positive. They face a revolving door in which they overdose, are patched up by doctors and returned to the same environment where they overdosed in the first place, he said.

    He said that while Vancouver is light years ahead of the United States in recognizing drug addiction as a medical problem rather than a law-enforcement issue and has invoked a number of harm-reduction strategies such as the needle-exchange program, the city still isn't close to solving its problem.

    "It is ironic that we expend most of our efforts and nearly all of our resources on combatting crime, reducing public drug use, restricting prostitution and treating drug-related illnesses as we allow the underlying causes of this problem to go largely neglected."

    Hilary Black, founder of the B.C. Compassion Club Society, which distributes cannabis for medicinal purposes, said her group fears government and corporate intervention when the drug is decriminalized.

    The club's proposal for a research project with some Vancouver scientists was turned down because it refused to allow the use of a placebo, she said, adding that helped reinforce distrust of government involvement. Health Canada's priority is to fund research that will result in patentable, marketable products, she said.

    "These legal products can be used to fortify the oppression of access to unprocessed cannabis. Those who need medicinal cannabis must have the option to use manufactured products or whole plant medicine as they wish, not as determined by a political agenda," she said.

    The societal culture against legalization of drugs isn't limited to cannabis. David Mossop, a lawyer with the Community Legal Assistance Service, said public opposition has made it impossible so far to open safe injection houses, even though they would help reduce the number of overdoses.

    Dean Wilson, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, told the committee addicts resent the way governments and social agencies take an elitist approach to dealing with them.


    "Prohibition is not protecting Canadians from the evils of cannabis; prohibition is destroying Canadians' lives. The stigma, shame and criminal record can ruin one's ability to succeed in life, families are torn apart by children being seized, or a parent may be taken away. So many good people are caged in jail, people we need in our society. The laws, not the plant, cause what violence there may be around cannabis."

    Hilary Black, founder and co-director of the B.C. Compassion Club Society.

    "Vancouver has been the site of a horrible natural study in drug use and more recently, HIV and hepatitis transmission. If we continue to be stalled in providing even the most modest services and interventions, we will be known as the city that did nothing when the epidemic occurred."

    Dr. Mark Tyndall, director of epidemiology at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

    "We live in a society where drug use is common. Legal drugs are everywhere and readily available to help us through the day if we need them -- to kill the pain, keep us awake, to help us sleep and so on. As with licit drugs, illicit drugs are also here to stay and are an issue that we will have to come to grips with and . . . learn to manage in a way whereby harm to individuals and communities as a result of substance misuse is reduced. Acknowledging the problem is the first step to problem solving and I believe that in Vancouver we have done that."

    Donald MacPherson, drug policy coordinator, city of Vancouver.

    "Our justice system and prisons are filled with people that would not have had any contact with the system had we treated the issue as a social problem. We must remember that drugs do not cause social ills but are a coping mechanism used by some to deal with those ills."

    Dean Wilson, Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.

    "Over the last four years, the city of Vancouver and its citizens have come to realize that we cannot ignore the illegal drug problem and associated property crime in our community. We can neither incarcerate our way out of it nor can we liberalize our way out of it. We cannot ignore it. We need to manage it through a comprehensive system of care that leads to safe and healthier communities."

    Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen.

    " I am not alone when I go on the record in support of the removal of criminal penalties for small private possession of cannabis as a means of reducing the economic costs of law enforcement, and the social costs of arrest of people who are otherwise not criminally involved."

    Inspector Kash Heed, commanding officer of the vice/drug section, Vancouver police department.

    "All that is lacking is the political will. The federal government should not only license safe injection facilities forthwith, but they should also fund them as well. Addicts may have charter rights to treatment and to safe injection sites."

    David Mossop, Community Legal Assistance Service.

    Note: But Philip Owen tells a Senate committee that hard drugs need a different approach.

    Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
    Author: Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun
    Published: Thursday, November 08, 2001
    Copyright: The Vancouver Sun 2001

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