PM Pledges to Revive Marijuana Legislation

National Post (22 Jul 2004)

Pot Usage Has Almost Doubled In Past 13 Years: StatsCan
OTTAWA - Paul Martin pledged yesterday to reintroduce legislation to decriminalize the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana, as a new study showed Canadians' use of the drug has doubled in recent years.  Amid speculation the new government would drop the legislation under pressure from the United States, the Prime Minister said after the first formal meeting of his new Cabinet that the bill "will be reintroduced this fall." Parliament failed to pass the legislation before it was dissolved prior to the June 28 election.  Mr.  Martin's statement came the same day Statistics Canada released a study showing the number of Canadians, especially younger ones, who admit to marijuana and hashish use has almost doubled over a 13-year period.  The federal agency says about three million Canadians aged 15 and older, or 12.2%, admitted in 2002 to using the two cannabis substances in the previous 12 months.  This was up from 6.5% in 1989 and 7.4% in 1994.  Marijuana use peaked among 18 and 19 year olds.  Almost 38% of that age group reported using marijuana and hashish in the previous year.  Among those aged 15 through 17, the rate was 29%, or almost three in 10.  Usage drops off the older Canadians get.  It drops to 6% among those 45 to 54 years of age, and virtually disappears after age 65.  Men in almost all age groups were more likely to use marijuana and hashish than women.  Mr.  Martin has said he may have eaten brownies laced with hashish when he was younger, and his predecessor, Jean Chretien, mused last year that he may try the drug in his retirement, should it be decriminalized.  Mr.  Chretien first proposed decriminalization after a provincial court struck down possession penalties.  The bill he introduced also proposed doubling the maximum penalty for growing more than 50 marijuana plants to 14 years in prison.  The head of a group advocating regulated legalization of marijuana said the StatsCan study exposes the ludicrousness of existing laws that make pot possession a criminal offence.  "The legal status of the drug has very little to do with whether people use it," said Eugene Oscapella of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy.  "All we're doing is continuing to criminalize millions and millions of Canadians.  I mean, three million Canadians have used it in the past year, are they really criminals?" But the move toward a more permissive drug policy risks inviting the ire of the U.S.  government and may jeopardize some of the $1.5-billion a day in commerce between the two countries.  "If we become known as a haven for the production of marijuana, I think it's only reasonable to assume that there will be controls put in place to prevent that type of activity from crossing the border," said Halifax Deputy Police Chief Chris McNeil, chairman of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police drug-abuse committee.  Paul Cellucci, the U.S.  ambassador to Canada, has said decriminalizing pot possession may lead to delays at the border as officials frisk travellers and search vehicles for drugs.  In the United States, possession charges may lead to a minimum fine of $1,000 and one year in prison.  Mr.  Martin's announcement may be greeted with even more alarm south of the border, as U.S.  officials have recently changed their drug policies to focus on marijuana abuse.  Prompted by reports that marijuana is becoming more potent and that U.S.  children are trying it at younger ages, officials at the National Institutes of Health and at the White House are hoping to shift some of the focus in research and enforcement from such "hard" drugs as cocaine and heroin to marijuana.  Drug use overall is falling among children and teens in the United States, but officials worry children who are trying pot are doing so at ever-younger ages, when their brains and bodies are vulnerable to side effects.  "Most people have been led to believe that marijuana is a soft drug, not a drug that causes serious problems," said John Walters, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.  "[But] marijuana today is a much more serious problem than the vast majority of Americans understand.  If you told people that one in five of 12- to 17-year-olds who ever used marijuana in their lives need treatment, I don't think people would remotely understand it." U.S.  officials believe marijuana is a gateway drug that can lead to the abuse of more harmful and addictive substances later in life.  But despite the rising number of pot smokers in Canada, the StatsCan study, based on data from the Canadian Community Health Survey, showed Canadians were significantly less likely to use cocaine/crack, ecstasy, LSD, speed/amphetamines and heroin.  Only 2.4% of Canadians aged 15 or older had used at least one of those drugs in the year before the survey.  Even without vocal U.S.  opposition, passing the marijuana bill through Parliament may prove difficult for the Liberal party, which lost its majority in the June 28 federal election.  With only 135 of 308 seats in the House of Commons, the Liberals need support from outside the party, and the Conservative party, with 99 seats, wants marijuana to remain illegal.  To pass the bill, Mr.  Martin will have to rely on backing from members of the NDP or Bloc Quebecois.  Pot usage in Quebec is higher than the national average, at 14%, according to the StatsCan study.  Parliament is due to reconvene on Oct.  4.  When MPs consider the new bill, they may be comforted to learn that among the three million Canadians who admitted to using cannabis in the year before the survey, close to half used the drug less than once a month.  One in 10 reported weekly use, and another 10% reported daily use.  As a percentage of the total population aged 15 or older, 1.1% of Canadians used cannabis daily, 2.8% more than once a week, 3.9% at least once a week, and 6% at least once a month, the report said.

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