It's Time To Ease Nation's Laws on Marijuana

Discussion in 'Marijuana Legalization' started by Superjoint, Aug 8, 2003.

  1. By Paul Ruschmann, Special to The Detroit News
    Source: Detroit News

    The Canadian government recently introduced legislation that would ease penalties for marijuana possession. The Bush administration's response was swift and heavy-handed.
    U.S. drug czar John Walters warned Canada that if the bill passed, the result would be increased security and lengthy delays at the border. Never mind that such a step would hurt American manufacturers -- especially the Big Three automakers -- far more than Canada's pot growers.

    Judging from Washington's reaction, one might think Canada is about to become the Netherlands of North America, complete with "coffee shops" on Windsor's Ouellette Avenue and rolling papers and water pipes at duty-free boutiques.

    But Canada's proposal is hardly radical. It would decriminalize possession of half an ounce or less; violators would be fined $150 in Canadian currency (about $115 U.S.), and would not be given a criminal record. That is a far cry from a Canadian Senate panel's recommendation last year that marijuana be legalized like alcohol and tobacco, with a minimum legal age of 16.

    Canada's approach is also in step with much of the industrialized world. A number of European countries, including Italy and Spain, have eliminated or reduced penalties for possessing small amounts. For years, the Netherlands has had an official policy of tolerating small-time users. Several Australian states have effectively decriminalized the drug.

    And on July 1, a law downgrading possession to a non-arrestable offense took effect in Britain.

    Even some U.S. states have decriminalized possession of small amounts; California, for instance, classifies it as a violation punishable by a $100 fine.

    States that relaxed their marijuana laws did so in the wake of the Shafer Commission's recommendation, in 1972, that penalties for possession of small amounts be eliminated. The panel found that harsh marijuana laws were the result of racial prejudice (the nation's earliest users were Chinese, Mexicans and blacks) and based on the mistaken belief that the drug was highly addictive, drove users to commit violent crimes and inevitably led to harder substances like heroin. The commissioners were hardly soft-on-crime liberals; they were appointed by President Richard Nixon and chaired by a former GOP governor.

    For a while, it appeared that lawmakers might follow the commission's advice and make marijuana penalties more proportional to the crime. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter asked Congress to ease penalties for possession.

    But after Ronald Reagan's election, the debate over marijuana came to an abrupt halt. The national policy became "just say no" and has remained that way under both Republican and Democratic administrations. While other countries moved toward decriminalization, penalties in the United States have become harsher; they now include loss of student financial aid, suspension of driving privileges, and the forfeiture of assets such as cars and boats.

    The Bush administration has taken the anti-marijuana crusade even further. It has run ads linking pot use to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks; brought federal charges against providers of medical marijuana, which is legal in a number of states; and staged a nationwide crackdown on paraphernalia dealers. State and local authorities are also taking a tough stance: Last year, more than 600,000 Americans were arrested on marijuana charges, most for simple possession.

    Administration officials reject decriminalization because they view marijuana as a moral issue. They are determined to eliminate its use, regardless of what it costs to catch and punish offenders or how much Americans' lives and careers are disrupted and their civil liberties curtailed. Other countries have concluded such an approach is impractical. Rather than aim for zero use, they are trying to eliminate the worst consequences, such as impaired driving and use by young teenagers.

    Despite the ongoing anti-marijuana crusade, a growing number of Americans are starting to question their government's hard-line approach. Opinion polls show overwhelming support for medical marijuana, and even a majority in favor of decriminalizing the drug. Support for outright legalization is higher now than it was during the 1970s; and, in recent years, proposals to legalize pot for adults won almost 40 percent of the vote in Alaska and Nevada.

    If Canada decriminalizes marijuana, criticism of America's zero-tolerance policy is likely to intensify. That is the last thing the Bush administration wants to happen. In opposing Canada's move to liberalize its laws, Washington warns of a flood of drugs across our borders. But what it really fears is a renewed debate at home over marijuana policy, and it seems willing to go to great lengths to stop that debate before it starts.

    Note: Heavy-handed law creates backlash as United States falls behind the rest of the world, which is moving toward decriminalizing the drug.

    Paul Ruschmann is a Canton Township freelance writer.

    Source: Detroit News (MI)
    Author: Paul Ruschmann
    Published: July 29, 2003
    Copyright: 2003 The Detroit News

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