The grass is greener on the other side of the law
Would you deem Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Ted Turner, Al Gore, Stephen King, Robert Mitchum, Bill Maher, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Ross Rebagliati as criminals? Each of these people has admitted to smoking marijuana in the past. Would you throw any of these people along with millions of others in jail for such a crime?
In recent Canadian news the topic of much controversial discussion has been the decriminalization of the possession of marijuana. The latest marijuana bill introduced proposes to decriminalize possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana. Offenders would receive fines of between $100 and $400, instead of criminal records and jail time. There is obviously a need for such a bill to be passed or it would not have been re-introduced.
The “marijuana bill” would affect, at a minimum, the population of some 12.2% of Canadian users as reported by Stats Can this year (Panetta), and a maximum some sources even say is 40%. With such a large population smoking marijuana, it is relatively safe to say that these people would also possess small amounts of marijuana. The current punishment is much too harsh for something no worse than having the occasional drink. Canadians as a whole would stand to benefit greatly from the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana in many different ways. Related health issues could be resolved with fewer struggles and would be more accessible to people without the fear of being persecuted, use would decrease, law enforcement would benefit from spending police hours on more important crimes and societal costs would decrease.
Millions of people have tried pot in the past, whether it is experimenting in college or to relax after a hard day or to help ease the pain and discomfort of some medical conditions. I am a typical college student; I indulge in smoking the occasional joint and I have in the past. Nobody has been hurt from my marijuana use or any of my friends or anyone else for that matter. Why should we fear becoming a criminal for something so harmless? Now I’m not saying that this includes those people that go out and get into a car accident because they were too high. I support the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana because I would much rather receive a fine for my actions than go to jail or ruin any chances that I might have at getting a good job in the future.
I will never forget the one time I did get caught smoking marijuana in high school. I don’t think anybody could have been more thankful that the police did not prosecute me, but decided to confiscate my marijuana and let me off with a warning. Although being a young offender the penalty would not have been nearly as harsh as what I could face today, with current marijuana possession laws. Under the young offenders act I would receive a “second chance” and would be referred to the alternative measures program which would entail community service as punishment and the record would be destroyed when I turned 18. Being 22, I could go to jail for the same offense of possessing a small amount of marijuana. Fortunately for me, I didn’t go jail, or have to endure the humiliation and distress from being arrested. But that doesn’t let me forget that each year thousands of peoples lives, education and careers are damaged by the stigmatizing experience of arrest. Families often incur emotional stresses and face lost income. The only people really affected by this bill are the large number of users and those who might want to try smoking pot. Decriminalizing possession of small amounts wouldn’t really affect anybody that doesn’t use marijuana and so, why oppose such a bill?
First let us discuss the severity of using marijuana, in comparison with much worse, legal drugs that people use everyday. Alcohol and tobacco are far more detrimental in every way than marijuana is. The largest supporting evidence for this lies in the statistics related to and social stigma surrounding the use of tobacco and alcohol.
In its simplest form, our laws are based upon what the majority of people think is right and wrong. People have made laws to protect and enforce these beliefs and morals. Society’s morals have decided that both alcohol and tobacco are acceptable substances for people to use and abuse at their own discretion. Bars, clubs, pubs, restaurants, everywhere that serve alcohol or allow smoking display society’s norm for the consumption of these substances. Places like these as well as the media and the majority of people in Canada advocate drinking to have a good time. Although smoking is becoming less accepted, the troubles surrounding it still exist. Both alcohol and tobacco contribute to an overwhelming amount of problems in society while marijuana use is unquestionably low in comparison.
Take tobacco for instance; 21% of Canadians smoke and tobacco related diseases kill more than 47 500 Canadians each year. Cigarette smoking causes about 30% of cancers in Canada and more than 85% of lung cancers. Lung cancer is the leading death causing cancer in Canada, as reported by the Canadian Cancer Society. Now some might say that marijuana is just as bad as smoking tobacco because smoke is still being inhaled in the same detrimental fashion. Although smoked marijuana contains the same amount of carcinogens as the equivalent amount of tobacco, a heavy tobacco smoker consumes much more tobacco than a heavy marijuana smoker consumes marijuana. This is because smoked tobacco has a 90% addiction rate and is the most addictive of all drugs while marijuana is less addictive than even caffeine. Editors of the Lancet British medical journal said, “The smoking of cannabis, even long-term, is not harmful to health. It would be reasonable to judge cannabis as less of a threat than alcohol or tobacco” (“British Medical Association’s”).
As for alcohol, though Canada is primarily a country of moderate drinkers, nearly 1 in 4 drinkers confess that their drinking has caused harm sometime in their lives. Recent studies by the Canadian Addiction Survey show that nearly 25% of Canadians are high-risk drinkers (Kirkey A6). Juergen Rehm, of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said “drinking is detrimentally related to 55 disease categories” (qtd. in Kirkey A6). Studies reported by MADD Canada in 1995 estimated that 6, 507 Canadians died due to alcohol consumption, and 82, 014 Canadians were admitted to hospitals because of alcohol misuse. These facts prompt the comparison of what is worse, alcohol or marijuana. When have you ever heard of a man smoking a joint and then beating his wife? How about a man having a couple drinks and then beating his wife? Alcohol has been known to cause violence in a large number of individuals, whereas the biggest complaint from marijuana use is that users become lethargic and loose their motivation. Hands down the worst of the two is alcohol; there is not a single statistic that shows any death as a result of a marijuana overdose.
Now I’m not saying that people should be allowed to get high by smoking some pot, and then drive a motor vehicle. Methods for testing whether or not a driver is under the influence of any substance must remain in place to keep people safe. However, recent research into impairment and traffic accidents from several different countries shows that when marijuana is taken alone, in moderate amounts, it does not significantly increase the driver’s risk of causing an accident. Although marijuana does impair driving ability, it does not have the same effects on judgment as alcohol. Drivers under the influence of marijuana remain very aware of their impairment, almost to the point of paranoia. This feeling prompts drivers to slow down and drive much more cautiously. Professor Alison Smiley at the University of Toronto said, “the more cautious behavior of subjects who received marijuana decreases the drug’s impact on performance. Their behavior is more appropriate to their impairment, whereas subjects who received alcohol tend to drive in a more risky manner” (Rolston). Any substance that alters a person’s perception and control shouldn’t be used prior to driving a car. But since people still break laws and do drive while under the influence, I would much rather be worried about a stoned driver going too slow and stopping for every little thing, than a drunk driver careening out of control and possibly killing someone.
Another strong point supporting the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana is the health benefits in decreasing use, as well as abuse. When compared to similar situations in Europe, it was found that places such as Holland, with a liberal policy, had lower drug user rates than the U.S.A. as well as considerably fewer hard-drug addicts than other countries (Katz 56). Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland, Spain, France and Britain are just a few of the European countries with relaxed marijuana laws that reflect the same trends. Other sources provide support that “Holland’s radical approach has not led to greater drug use, and has improved addicts’ health” (Ford). People cannot receive the help and treatment they require if they are jailed. Europe treats these people like addicts and not criminals, as they should be treated. With this in mind, the whole marijuana issue presents itself as more of a public-health problem than a law-and-order problem. How many people are going to seek help if they are afraid they will be “busted” for it? If the bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana goes through, people can freely seek the help that they need without fear of going to jail.
One of the larger concerns expressed from people opposing this bill is that it would condone the use of drugs when we’re trying so hard to prevent it. People have also said that marijuana is a gateway drug and will lead to far worse, harder drugs. First of all, correlation does not equal causation, in any case. What the gateway theory presents is a statistical association between common and uncommon drugs. This association changes over time as different drugs increase and decrease in popularity. Marijuana is the most popular illegal drug today and therefore people who have used other drugs such as heroin, cocaine and LSD, are likely to have also used marijuana. The majority of marijuana users never use any other illegal drug and for the majority of people, marijuana is a terminus rather than a gateway drug.
Secondly, the idea that marijuana use can be prevented is nothing more than a very common myth. If history has told us anything about human nature, it’s that when something is made “untouchable”, it makes us want it even more. The best example of this is from childhood. Everyone can relate to being told they can’t do something as a child. The fact that you couldn’t do it just made it all that much more attractive. More times than not kids do what they were specifically told not to just because they weren’t supposed to. With the same idea in mind, people really don’t change too much, only circumstances do. By telling people that they can’t smoke marijuana and may face jail time for doing so doesn’t deter the nature of human curiosity. If people are going to do these things anyway, why mark a person for life with a criminal record when the same message can be delivered in a way that benefits society much more. Basically the one thing that everyone on the planet understands is money. By receiving a fine, people are still deterred from using marijuana but aren’t forever scarred with a criminal record or by going to jail. The point is still made and as a bonus, the government makes money on the fines.
It is a common fact that police are in high demand, especially in today’s world with all the crime and violence people are exposed to. With all the violence and dangers out there for families, prompt police action has become increasingly important. In 2002, 75% of the reported 93 000 drug-related incidents involved pot and almost three quarters of those were possession charges (Bailey). Many officers consider marijuana possession related crimes to be somewhat of a social nuisance and do not currently enforce these laws by the book. The head of vice and narcotics enforcement for the Vancouver Police Department, Rollie Woods said that “at this point he supports legalization, if only so he can concentrate on Vancouver’s growing crack problem” (Hardy 150). Officially however, police cannot redirect their actions to the more important crimes deserving more time and attention until something is done. Decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana is a great start. In fact, the major barriers to reconsideration of the prohibition of cannabis are political, not scientific or legal (Wodak 108).
Subsequently, with the police effort becoming more efficient, overall costs would decrease. A recently published study done by the Fraser Institute in British Columbia shows that about $400 million a year is spent on arresting, prosecuting and jailing drug criminals in Canada. This has resulted in more than 600 000 Canadians with a criminal record for marijuana possession. According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 2000 Canadians go to jail every year for possession of marijuana. The cost to the taxpayer to house a criminal for one day is $150. Rollie Woods also said that “Investing millions in a crackdown may be of little consequence, you could give me a hundred people, and it wouldn’t make a difference” (Hardy 149). Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell would even go so far as to say, “marijuana sales should be taxed and the revenue used to fund treatment for the effects of more serious drugs” (“Legalize, tax pot”). The former Mountie (RCMP) also said that “Taxes levied on marijuana sales could add to the resources for treatment, and that the B.C. marijuana trade is estimated at $6 billion annuallylarger than construction or forestry” (“Legalize, tax pot”).
However, some might say that the $6 billion doesn’t get put into our economy, but stays in the black market surrounding illegal drugs; this is untrue. In B.C. for example, tourism is down and thousands of jobs were cut when the U.S. put tariffs on our softwood exports and banned Canadian beef after the brief mad cow scare, yet the marijuana business is thriving. Ultimately, much of the revenue generated from the marijuana industry goes right back into hundreds of legitimate businesses selling supplies, electricity, water, lights, fertilizer, filters, pipes, posters, furniture, clothes and everything else to growers and users alike. Take Robert Smith, from Grand Forks, B.C., for example; he isn’t part of the trade, but indirectly profits from it at his furniture store. He said, “Of the money coming through my door, 15% to 20% comes from cannabiswe’d be on welfare without it” (Hardy 146). Everybody wants more money, what better reason to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana than to have more money available to Canadians?
With the increased economic activity, and relaxed possession laws, people against the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana are concerned this will only encourage the existing problem of Canadian marijuana exports to the U.S. These people would argue that because Canada shares a thinly guarded, 5 000 mile border with the U.S., Canadians are the largest supplier of marijuana to the United States. Although Canada does share such a large border with the United States, Mexico remains the largest supplier of foreign marijuana for U.S. consumers. Recent studies have shown that over 500 tons of marijuana was seized at the Mexican border in 2001, more than 100 times the volume confiscated at the Canadian border. California, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and Florida are just some of the largest suppliers in the United States.
Support for the marijuana bill strongly exists and has increasingly presented itself the past few years. The most recent mention of this was made after re-election by Prime Minister Paul Martin. He said, “The federal government is committed to marijuana decriminalization and will reintroduce the legislation to make it happen” (Panetta). If a need for this legislation didn’t exist, it would not have presented itself as many times as it has. The harsh punishment that currently exists for possessing a substance less harmful than tobacco and alcohol has been long overdue for a change. Nobody deserves to be marred for life by a criminal record for smoking pot. There are much more pertinent problems law enforcement needs to focus its time and resources on. With this in mind, we must not forget that the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana does not affect how trafficking marijuana is prosecuted. Drug dealers will still be punished by incarceration, as they are now. The effects of this bill promote higher efficiency rates, decreased societal costs, decreased usage and most of all a punishment that is appropriately suited. Ultimately the grass would be much greener on the other side of the lawwhen possessing and smoking pot legally isn’t so much of a “crime”.
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