Just months after the Canadian Senate recommended the full legalization of marijuana, the House of Commons Special Committee on Non-Medical Use of Drugs is calling for a dramatic rethink of Canadian drug policy that emphasizes public health and prevention over punishment.
"Europe, Canada and Australia are all abandoning the punitive approach to drugs and adopting more rational solutions," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Meanwhile, here in the U.S., the drug warriors are raiding medical marijuana providers and forcing cancer and AIDS patients into the hands of street dealers."
Groundbreaking drug policy recommendations from the Special Committee include:
- Clinical heroin maintenance pilot projects in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal to test the effectiveness of heroin-assisted treatment for drug-dependent individuals resistant to other forms of treatment
- Needle exchange programs that incorporate primary health care services as well as prevention and education, counselling, treatment and rehabilitation
- The removal of federal regulatory or legislative barriers to the implementation of safe-injection room pilot projects to determine the effectiveness of safe injection facilities in reducing the social and health problems related to injection drug use
- Decriminalizing the possession and cultivation of not more than thirty grams of cannabis for personal use
The need for ongoing evaluation is stressed throughout the House of Commons document. Canada's Drug Strategy must be comprehensive, integrated, balanced and sustainable and include alcohol, tobacco, illicit substances and pharmaceutical drugs," the report says. The expected approval of Canadian Justice Minister Martin Cauchon is required before the committee recommendations become law. Health Canada has already issued guidelines for safe-injection drug sites and the Justice Minister has voiced support for marijuana decriminalization, stating the change in law will likely take place in early 2003.
"Canada has clearly joined Europe in putting public health before politics" said Nadelmann. "Drug policy should focus not on reducing the total number of people who use drugs, but rather on reducing the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drug use and drug prohibition." U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers estimate that 57% of AIDS cases among women are linked to injection drug use or sex with partners who inject drugs. Overall, 36% of AIDS cases in the U.S. can be traced back to intravenous drug use. The federal government bans the use of federal monies on needle exchange programs, despite compelling evidence that they reduce the spread of HIV without increasing drug use.
U.S. Drug Czar John Walters responded to the House of Commons report by claiming Canada will pose a "dangerous threat" to the U.S. if it decriminalizes marijuana. According to Walters, more Americans are in treatment for marijuana than alcohol. "Record numbers of Americans arrested for marijuana possession have been forced into treatment by the criminal justice system" said Robert Sharpe, a policy analyst with the Drug Policy Alliance. "The coercion of Americans who prefer marijuana to martinis into taxpayer-funded treatment centers says a lot about U.S. government priorities, but absolutely nothing about the relative harms of marijuana."
In September, the Canadian Senate concluded that marijuana is relatively benign, marijuana prohibition contributes to organized crime, and law enforcement efforts have little impact on patterns of use. "Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol, and should be treated not as a criminal issue, but as a social and public health issue," said Senator Pierre Claude Nolin.
Copies of the House of Commons and Senate reports can be found at: www.parl.gc.ca