Page 18 December 2009/January 2010 COMMENTARY The Lower Island NEWS Decriminalization or legalization of drugs? By Diane Walsh
To any rational person, the consequences on society of bad drug policy are obvious.
This article was inspired in part by the noteworthy article, “Legalize and
Writing in the Toronto Star’s June 3, 2009, issue, Victoria police officer David Bratzer
Regulate Drug Use” published in the Toronto Star (June 3, 2009) and written not
cites “public disorder, backlogged courts, high property crime rates, organized crime
by a journalist but a ballsy police officer named David Bratzer from Victoria.
and gang violence over control of the drug trade” to try to awake the public to realize
He’s an open and public member of Law Enforcement against Prohibition.
that “these costs are not worth an absolute prohibition on drug use in our society”.
LEAP for short is an organization presently gaining favour among progressive
An open member of the organization, Law Enforcement against Prohibition (LEAP),
politicians and community problem-solvers – with Bratzer – who’s helped cut to
Bratzer says, “A better approach would be to treat drug abuse as a public health problem
the chase. The nub of his message: “We need to admit that what we’re doing is
rather than as a criminal justice problem.”
not working and embrace the concet of legalization, to better serve and protect
“It is time for medical facilities that cover the full spectrum of harm reduction, including
regulated access to heroin and cocaine,” he adds. “Enforcement would not be part ofthis health-care.”
Bratzer is enormously respected in the Victoria community and is part of a larger
collective voice of action being heard in Canada at this time. This is in concert with
Cannabis is used for a wide variety of purposes (source: wikipedia)
other intellectually honest allies such as US President Obama.
Other BC LEAP members include Senator Larry Campbell, former mayor of
Vancouver, and retired British Columbia Justice Jerry Paradis, a recent contributor to
Hemp is the natural, durable soft fiber from the stalk of Cannabis sativa plants that grow upwards of
Canadian Dimension (spring 2009) and radio, speaking on the subject on legalization.
20 feet tall. Cannabis plants used for hemp production are not valued for recreational uses as the
plants that are cultivated for hemp produce minimal levels of THC, analogous to attempting to get
Retired police detective Anthony (Tony) Smith explains that LEAP is an international
drunk from low-alcohol beer. Cannabis plants intended for any drug cultivation cannot be hidden in ahemp field either, as the size and height of each are significantly different.
organization that started in the US with the aim of legalizing drugs worldwide and intenton removing the UN sanction against drugs. Smith explains the backdrop for LEAP’s
Hemp producers sell hemp seeds as a health food, as they are rich in heart-healthy, essential fatty
acids, amino acids (both essential and nonessential), vitamins and minerals. Hemp "milk" is a milk
“This sanction was pushed through the UN by US money and control and applies to
substitute also made from hemp seeds that is both dairy and gluten-free.
all the signatory nations of the UN. The problem will not be truly solved without worldwideaction. LEAP has 13,000 members, many of whom are from outside the US.”
Hemp is fairly easy to grow and matures very fast compared to many crops, most notably trees used
When I first communicated with Smith, explaining I wanted to do a piece on what
for paper. Compared to cotton for clothing, hemp cloth is known to be of superior strength and last
decriminalization would look like if it were “policy”, he said bluntly, “Many reporters feel
longer. The fibers may also be used to form cordage for industrial-strength ropes. Hemp plants alsorequire little pesticides and herbicides due to its height, density and foliage. This also makes the
it is incumbent to add their own untested views, in order to facilitate their egos. Please
hemp plant very environmentally-friendly.
I promised to approach the subject in good faith. But the truth is I did hesitate when
Hemp can be utilized for 25,000 very durable textile products, ranging from paper and clothing to
biofuels (from the oils found in the seeds), medicines and construction material. Hemp has been
Originally it had only occurred to me to discuss decriminalization, otherwise known
used by many civilizations, from China to Europe (and later North America) for the last 12,000 years
as “decrim”. But when I began to do some research around town, I realized it would be
a bit of a cop-out to focus on decrim, and it was certainly not where LEAP was at norwhere many people in Victoria were at in terms of their sense of the activism required. Cannabis (drug) Cannabis is a popular recreational drug around the world, only behind alcohol, caffeine and tobacco.
(More on this later with Ted Smith, from Victoria’s medical cannabis club).
In the United States alone, it is believed that over 100 million Americans have tried Cannabis, with 25
In the past, whenever I’d considered doing an article on legalization (as opposed to
million Americans using it within the past year.
decriminalization), one of my nagging concerns, with the Internet, was the possibility ofbeing infiltrated [since George W. was then in power and so many wacky things were
The psychoactive effects of Cannabis are known to have a biphasic nature. The first psychoactive
going on and journalists were being severely targeted for not towing the party-line].
effects include a state of relaxation, and to a lesser degree, euphoria from its main psychoactive
As odd as it may have seemed, I decided I had to ask Smith in our interview: Does
compound, tetrahydrocannabinol. The latter effects include an increase in heart rate and hunger,
the FBI (or by extension, CSIS) follow LEAP activity and outside activist communication?
believed to be caused by 11-Hydroxy-THC, a psychoactive metabolite of THC produced in the liver.
That is, do they watch LEAP members or people who spend time/resources hacking
In addition to euphoria, other psychoactive effects such as introspection, metacognition, anxiety orparanoia and a facility for philosophical thinking are also commonly reported. Cannabidiol (CBD),
information, to find out about member communication with other people outside the
which has no psychotropic effects by itself, has been shown to attenuate the higher anxiety levels
organization of similar leaning across Canada and the US?
caused by THC alone. Some studies show that cannabidiol actually has a small stimulant effect
Smith responded, “I doubt it,” adding, “Medical marijuana is legal in 14 states, and
similar to caffeine. The Cannabis sativa plant is known to cause more of a "high" by stimulating
ignored in many cities. The [US] president himself states in his book, Things my Father
hunger, and producing comedic and energetic effects. Conversely, the Cannabis indica plant is
Taught Me, that he used marijuana and cocaine in high school and until his final year in
known to cause more of the "stoned" effect, possibly due to a higher CBD to THC ratio.
Ok, not that reassuring but I would work with it.
Normal cognition is restored in approximately three hours for larger doses via a smoking pipe, bong
What did surprise me was when he informed me that “some members of the FBI
or vaporizer. However, if a large amount is taken orally the effects may last much longer. Minus-cule psychoactive effects may be felt up to 24 hours to a few days, depending on dosage, frequency
themselves are members of LEAP”. Now that’s cool!!
But the question remained in my mind: Why is Canada depending on LEAP rather
than having an individual and sovereign organization of its own?
According to the UK medical journal The Lancet, Cannabis has a lower rate of dependence com-
Smith clarified, “Canada is not dependant on LEAP; rather LEAP is dependant on all
pared to both nicotine and alcohol. However, everyday use of Cannabis is correlated with some
its volunteer members. This is a worldwide problem, however it is likely that Canada
withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, and insomnia. There is also evidence to sug-
and the US, which have mirrored each other in prohibition will mirror each other in
gest that if a user experiences stress, the likeliness of getting a panic attack increases due to an
increase in THC metabolites. However, any Cannabis withdrawal symptoms are typically
But still, interestingly, there is but one known representative from high public office
mild to moderate and are never life-threatening alone. Various extracts including hashish andhash oil are also produced from the plant.
in LEAP. “Only Senator Campbell”, Smith confirms.
“Many politicians however support us. Come on, no politician is ever going to get
into any situation they can’t deny when useful,” scoffs Smith, understandably.
A synthetic form of the main psychoactive cannabinoid in Cannabis, 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC),
Smith is firm in his response, “We are not a secret society. Criticism of government
is used as a treatment for a wide range of medical conditions.
policy is incumbent on individuals if we are to remain in a true and useful society. Lookwhat happened when newspapers feared to criticize George Bush. Read the New York
In the United States, although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does acknowledge that
Times—they constantly criticize government policies in a much more aggressive, insulting
"there has been considerable interest in its use for the treatment of a number of conditions, including
glaucoma, AIDS wasting, neuropathic pain, treatment of spasticity associated with multiple sclero-sis, and chemotherapy-induced nausea," the agency has not approved "medical marijuana". There
Thinking back to the Bush years and setting aside just for the moment Obama’s
are currently 2 oral forms of cannabis (cannabinoids) available by prescription in the United States
effort to soften US federal drug policy toward cannabis use, many people still say that
for nausea and vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy: dronabinol (Marinol) and nabilone
the US’s modus operandi is an on-going war on drug users, not the drug traffickers/drug
(Cesamet). Dronabinol is also approved for the treatment of anorexia associated with AIDS. The
makers – with the Canadian Conservatives attempting to resuscitate “Bush” on drugs.
FDA does facilitate scientific investigations into the medical uses of cannabinoids.
Smith agrees. “This was stated policy at one time, the theory being that if there were
no users, there would be no market for dealers. The other thing to be aware of is that the
In a collection of writings on medical marijuana by 45 researchers, a literature review on the medici-
arms industry relies on money from drugs to provide the resources for rebel groups and
nal uses of Cannabis and cannabinoids concluded that established uses include easing of nausea
even some governments to purchase arms.”
and vomiting, anorexia, and weight loss; "well-confirmed effect" was found in the treatment of spas-ticity, painful conditions (i.e. neurogenic pain), movement disorders, asthma, and glaucoma. Re-
The Harper government’s current position is nothing more than an attempt to piggy-
ported but "less-confirmed" effects included treatment of allergies, inflammation, infection, epilepsy,
back onto the drug policy of the former US president.
depression, bipolar disorders, anxiety disorder, dependency and withdrawal. Basic level research
Smith is as mystified as the rest of us, saying, “I really have no idea. Harper is an
was being carried out at the time on autoimmune disease, cancer, neuroprotection, fever, disorders
enigma. If he took one serious look at the situation, and what is going on in the world
today, particularly the US, he would not be doing what he is”.
The drug wars in Mexico and to a lesser extent on the streets of Surrey, BC, make it
Clinical trials conducted by the American Marijuana Policy Project, have shown the efficacy of can-
a scary proposition to be seen to launch toward a “legalizing of drugs” conversation
nabis as a treatment for cancer and AIDS patients, who often suffer from clinical depression, and
when there is so much vested interest in the trade being illegal.
from nausea and resulting weight loss due to chemotherapy and other aggressive treatments. Asynthetic version of the cannabinoid THC named dronabinol has been shown to relieve symptoms of
But Smith points out that “the only way we can reduce the [gangs’] influence, is to
anorexia and reduce agitation in elderly Alzheimer's patients. Dronabinol has been approved for use
remove their major source of income. During alcohol prohibition, the murder rate
with anorexia in patients with HIV/AIDS and chemotherapy-related nausea. This drug, while demon-
increased four times; after repeal it went back to what it was before, and most of the
strating the effectiveness of Cannabis at combating several disorders, is more expensive and less
gangs simply went out of business. No business can run without producing an income.
available than "pot" and has not been shown to be effective or safe.
Prior to 1920 all drugs were legal and sold by pharmacies. The pharmacists didn’t shooteach other.”
Glaucoma, a condition of increased pressure within the eyeball causing gradual loss of sight, can be
I asked Smith if he thought talking publicly about the subject of legalization carried
treated with medical marijuana to decrease this intraocular pressure. There has been debate for 25
any risk along with it. “Maybe,” he said, “but I really don’t care. If we continue along this
years on the subject. Some data exist, showing a reduction of IOP in glaucoma patients who smokecannabis, but the effects are short-lived, and the frequency of doses needed to sustain a decreased
route we will certainly see gangs intimidating and killing police, judges, prosecutors,
IOP can cause systemic toxicity. There is also some concern over its use since it can also decrease
etc, as they do in Mexico and many other countries. This would destroy our way of life
blood flow to the optic nerve. Marijuana lowers IOP by acting on a cannabinoid receptor on the ciliary
and all we care about. In Mexico the choice given to law enforcement is, ‘the bullet or
body called the CB receptor.Although Cannabis is not a good therapeutic choice for glaucoma pa-
tients, it may lead researchers to more effective, safer treatments. A promising study shows that
Even with legalization, I suggest, there will always be an interest for some to undercut
agents targeted to ocular CB receptors can reduce IOP in glaucoma patients who have failed other
what-would-become the legal drugs to provide easier or/and more powerful drugs and
Source: Wikipedia For more information, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Maybe, but Smith is quick to point out, “Many powerful substances are already legal. The Lower Island NEWS INTERNATIONAL NEWS AND VIEWS December 2009/January 2010 Page 19 The movement gains momentum A couple of years ago, there was a horrific problem with kids in Northern Labrador sniffing gasoline and glue. They were brought south for treatment because the facilities were here, not because our cars don’t run on g asoline…Criminals will still sell some drugs, but it will be a tiny proportion providing drugs are easily available through any system we establish, without too many restrictions. This is important because the more restrictions we impose, the larger will be the role of gangs.”
So, how could we, as a society, guarantee that the harm reduction resources, facilities,
Smith paints this picture: “Life has no guarantees, but with the savings in law
enforcement, courts and jails, medical – amounting in Canada to 2.5 billion dollarsyearly, surely a small portion could be used for harm reduction?”
Ok, here’s the cliché that I just had to ask: How would we explain good from bad to
children if crack-meth was, say, legal and available in what would be tantamount to asegregated drug store, sanctioned by a progressive government?
Smith argues, “The important thing is for our children to have healthy, loving,
supportive childhoods. If you look at the derelict drug users in our inner cities, they arethere not because of drugs but because of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Many have escaped chronic alcoholism in their home communities. Healthy kids haveplans, to become productive members of society, to marry, to have kids of their own. Nowhere on their list of things to do is to become chronic drug abusers and it won’thappen.”
He adds, “Re: [Crystal] there are many things not mentioned. We already give
our attention deficit kids crystal—Ritalin is the same substance. The difference is crystalis smoked which gets it into the brain much more rapidly. Anything can be abused;some addicts mainline painkillers, anti-nausea drugs, anti-histamines etc.Injection isthe problem as it gets large amounts of the substance almost immediately into thebrain.”
When asked to outline his concept of what legalization would look like, Smith was
equivocal in saying that “[we] are not going to design that; it will be muddled over andfiddled with by the politicians for years. Several models have been suggested. One viewis that we should distribute in much the same way as we do tobacco and alcohol today. Remember it is much easier for kids today to get drugs than alcohol. Clearly the derelict-type addict would have to be supervised and provided drugs until able or willing to getoff them altogether. That alone will cut property crimes by at least 80%. Others havesuggested that pharmacies sell drugs as they did until 1920. Whatever system we use,it must provide privacy for the purchaser and be readily available. If not the gangs willcontinue to thrive.”
What does Smith say of the status-quo? “I loathe a system entirely designed to make vicious criminals rich and powerful.
Furthermore, their kids likely will be wealthy and so called pillars of society and allthrough drugs. Any long-term police [person] will tell you the scariest drug is liquor. With it, respectable individuals turn into violent, vile animals. All riots are alcoholassociated, as are almost all violent crimes. Other drugs if used in these situations arealmost always taken with liquor.”
He concluded, “At least 80% of property crimes are committed by addicts. Why not
provide them with their drug of choice, and save people from the victimization or B&E’s,theft from auto, etc.”
The Opposition viewpoint
Denise Savoie, NDP MP for Victoria, is equally appalled by the idiocy of the
Conservative government’s formal position on drugs. She says categorically, “I believethe way to prevent the problems associated with drug use is not to ‘get tough’ by furthercriminalizing it, as the Conservatives continue to do with measures like Bill C-15. ThisUS-styled war on drugs is simplistic, knee-jerk and counter-productive; we already spend73% of our drug strategy on enforcement, yet drug use continues to rise”.
Savoie continues, “There is certainly need and value in cracking down on gangs and
organized crime by increasing policing resources, which the Conservatives have not yetdelivered; however, it must be complemented by addressing drug use from a publichealth perspective, making smart use of harm reduction, strengthening communityresources and targeting the root causes of demand.”
She adds, “That’s not soft on crime, it’s smart on crime. Meanwhile, the current
Cannabis sativa from Vienna Dioscurides, 512 A.D. -- from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Conservative ‘strategy’ of slapping a mandatory minimum on every crime in the code isintellectually bankrupt and entirely ineffective. It doesn’t deter organized and violent
if they are convicted of intending to sell it [marijuana].”
crime – it just makes it better organize and more violent.”
Think of Ted Smith as a walking, talking hemp plant.
The most unequivocal and interesting point she makes is this: “Cracking down on
The question that begs to be asked is, with so many people wanting to use cannabis,
someone with two pot plants in their pocket is a ridiculous diversion of precious resources
why not make it easier for them to get a prescription, instead of them having to access
– like cracking down on jaywalkers while ignoring speeding cars. I personally believe
the drug illegally? Then the issue becomes encouraging doctors to further investigate
that it’s time to recognize that prohibition has caused more death, pain, harm and crime
the merits of cannabis as pain relief and exploring the political reasons holding that
than we can bear, and it’s time to stop it”.
For people who don’t know, Savoie also points out, “I presented a petition in the
Patients who have a prescription from a doctor are getting marijuana legally in Victoria.
House of Commons last year (wearing a hemp shirt) asking the government to recognize
Contrary to gossip, it’s not technically unlawful to self-medicate with cannabis but there
that industrial hemp is a valuable fibre and a large biomass source that could be used to
are hoops to jump through: you must have proof that you are suffering from a disease
replace many commonly used problematic materials. Industrial hemp could actually
where cannabis may prove useful/helpful.
help farmers diversify their farm operations, and many people have called for government
That’s a bit different from a doctor recommending using cannabis in writing. It
incentives for industrial hemp processing facilities for paper and other products, while
allows the patient to make the call, and protects the doctor’s reputation albeit he/she
making use of hemp biomass in the making of bio-fuels, instead of using food for fuel.
could certainly produce a medical file that itemizes the patient’s condition, if need be.
I will continue to advocate these smart approaches to drug policy in Canada”.
The whole argument in connection to the use of cannabis for medical purposes is
There are certainly many people who would like to know more about this petition
Professionals who argue that marijuana is relatively safe can face severe political
consequences. For instance, Professor David Nutt, the British government’s chief drug
Cannabis for medical purposes
adviser, was removed from his post after he said the drug was less harmful than alcohol.
A required part of this overall conversation is of course the equally controversial and
It may not to be as bad in Canada but certainly doctors have to be careful not to
political subject of providing high-quality cannabis for medical purposes.
damage their careers and not look like they are advocating being a pot-head!
But there are people willing to put themselves out there. One such character worth
Marijuana as a drug with medical benefits is increasingly being recognized – there’s
following is Ted Smith who heads up the medical cannabis club in Victoria found at
no question of that. For instance, Dr. Willem Scholten, of the World Health Organization,
believes patients should have access to high-quality medicine [Wall Street Journal,
He comes into the debate with the comment that, “In regards to legalization vs.
decriminalization, I consider decrim a lawyer’s term for job protection.”
Scholten, as is the case with many other sincere professionals, implies that if cannabis
Smith’s point is that, “While, under decrim, the consumer faces fewer penalties,
does have medical attributes, there would need to be a system in place that ensures
there is still a reigning regime of punishment and denial, giving organized criminal groups
that patients get their medicine (without contamination, bacteria, pesticides and/or harmful
other ingredients in the stash) and that they get the same access every time. The key is
“Legalization turns all the justice system expenses of the drug war into small, tax-
that it be grown, regulated and distributed legally.
paying businesses,” he says. “This would allow police to focus upon crimes with victims
If cannabis is a good medicine, then it should be accessible to people who suffer
while taking a source of revenue away from criminal organizations. The best model to
from serious pain as a result of HIV, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, HEP C, and
consider is how the wine industry operates, maximizing jobs by promoting small
other grave illnesses. Certainly this list isn’t exhaustive.
businesses that could specialize in local varieties and extra services.”
The movement toward legalization of drugs both “hard” and “soft” gains momentum
Smith adds, “The changes happening under the new administration in the US are
once we accept cannabis for medical use. Patient first in other words.
exciting. It is weird watching the US getting out of the drug war while the current leadingpolitical party in Canada is preparing mandatory minimum sentences for various drug
Diane Walsh is a freelance writer, working out of Victoria.
crimes. Bill C-15 would give people at least six months for growing as few as six plants
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