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(This is the text of a letter sent by the CFDP to the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs to clarify some issues that had been raised during hearings on Bill C-8. These issues included Canada's international obligations, the impact of decriminalization of cannabis on rates of use, the myth of cannabis as a "gateway" drug, the deterrent effect of the criminal law, recent developments in Australia, and the need to focus on the serious harms (HIV and hepatitis infection, violence and overdoses) that criminal prohibition fosters.)


May 6, 1996

Ms. Heather Lank
Clerk
Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs
Victoria Building
130 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON

Dear Mrs. Lank:

At the Committee's April 25 hearing on Bill C-8, it became clear that Committee members might want further information on several issues -- among them, Canada's international obligations, the impact of decriminalizing marijuana on rates of cannabis use, and the deterrent effect of the criminal law on use. Accordingly, we have assembled reference materials dealing with these and related issues and are pleased to provide them to the Committee. The reference materials are contained in a binder accompanying this letter. This letter summarizes some of the highlights of the material.

1. Canada's international obligations

When Mr. Glenn Gilmour appeared before the Committee on April 25, he addressed Canada's international obligations and argued that they did not require the criminalization of possession of cannabis.

What Mr. Gilmour did not stress was that 11 American states have already decriminalized possession of marijuana. Most did so between 1973 and 1981. The most recent analysis of U.S. drug laws that we have (1994) shows that those states have retained these policies. I understand from the U.S. National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) that these states cover about one-third of the American population.

In light of this situation in the United States, decriminalization would seem not to be a particularly radical step for Canada. Nor should this step draw any justifiable criticism from the United States on grounds that Canada was violating international law.

We note as well that the Premier's Drug Advisory Council in the state of Victoria, Australia, recommended three weeks ago that citizens of that state be permitted to (a) possess and use small quantities of marijuana -- 25 grams -- and (b) grow up to five plants at home. (Australian Associated Press, Melbourne, April 10, 1996).

Just two days ago, the same press service reported that Australian Health Minister, Michael Wooldridge, would back any state moving to decriminalize marijuana (AAP, Sydney, May 4, 1996).

2. The impact of decriminalization on rates of use

We enclose copies of several analyses of the impact of decriminalization:

    J. Morgan, D. Riley and G. Chesher, "Cannabis: Legal Reform, Medicinal Use and Harm Reduction", in N. Heather, ed., Psychoactive Drugs and Harm Reduction: From Faith to Science

    Diane Riley, "Decriminalization of Marijuana Use: Effects on Consumption and Harm" (paper presented at the Third International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm, Melbourne, 1992)

    E. Single, "The Impact of Marijuana Decriminalization", in Y. Israel, Research Advances in Alcohol and Drug Problems, (Vol. 6, 1981)

    The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, "The Impact of Marijuana Decriminalization -- An Update" (this is an updated version of Dr. Single's earlier paper)

    The Lindesmith Center, Exposing Marijuana Myths: A Review of the Scientific Evidence (1995).

    A. Trebach, "Their Spirit of Moderation and Experimentation is Unmatched", in A. Trebach and K. Zeese, ed., Drug Prohibition and the Conscience of Nations (1990).

Some of the salient points from Dr. Riley's 1992 paper:

    * there is very little evidence . . . that marijuana laws exert a strong deterrent effect on use (Riley, p. 1)

    * in surveys, most nonusers cite potential health hazards as the main reason for not using marijuana (Riley, pp. 2,7; see also the testimony of the Addiction Research Foundation before the Health Subcommittee on Bill C-7)

    * while decriminalization (in this case, replacement of the criminal law with a non-criminal ticketing scheme, like a parking ticket) may have led to modest increases in use in the short term, long term rates were not higher than in [U.S.] states that did not decriminalize (Riley, pp. 5-6)

    * in his 1989 review of decriminalization in the United States, Dr. Eric Single concluded, "In the decade prior to the enactment of decriminalization laws [in the U.S.], with the risk of arrests very low and marijuana readily available, trends in use appear to have been relatively unaffected by the existing criminal laws against possession. . . . Decriminalization measures have had little or no impact on rates of use but they have substantially reduced the social costs associated with the enforcement of marijuana laws" (Riley, p. 8)

    * in The Netherlands, where possession of small amounts of marijuana is not subject to prosecution, one survey at the end of the 1980s indicated that 12% of Dutch high-school students had used marijuana at least once in their lifetime -- far less than the 59% for the same age group in the United States, where marijuana possession is generally prohibited (Riley, p. 14)(the lifetime marijuana use rate for Canadians 15-19 is 23.2%: Health and Welfare Canada, Alcohol and Other Drug Use by Canadians: A National Alcohol and Other Drugs Survey (1989): Technical Report, at 83); in short, Dutch lifetime use rates among adolescents at the end of the 1980s were lower than those of adolescents in two countries that had strict laws against possession

    * use within the last month is also considerably lower in The Netherlands at the end of the 1980s-- 5.4% versus 29% in the United States (Riley, p. 14) (there are no comparable figures for Canada)

    * in South Australia, which introduced a ticketing system for possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1987, rates of use did not change (Riley, p. 15)

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(This is the text of a letter sent by the CFDP to the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs to clarify some issues that had been raised during hearings on Bill C-8. These issues included Canada's international obligations, the impact of decriminalization of cannabis on rates of use, the myth of cannabis as a "gateway" drug, the deterrent effect of the criminal law, recent developments in Australia, and the need to focus on the serious harms (HIV and hepatitis infection, violence and overdoses) that criminal prohibition fosters.)


May 6, 1996

Ms. Heather Lank
Clerk
Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs
Victoria Building
130 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON

Dear Mrs. Lank:

At the Committee's April 25 hearing on Bill C-8, it became clear that Committee members might want further information on several issues -- among them, Canada's international obligations, the impact of decriminalizing marijuana on rates of cannabis use, and the deterrent effect of the criminal law on use. Accordingly, we have assembled reference materials dealing with these and related issues and are pleased to provide them to the Committee. The reference materials are contained in a binder accompanying this letter. This letter summarizes some of the highlights of the material.

1. Canada's international obligations

When Mr. Glenn Gilmour appeared before the Committee on April 25, he addressed Canada's international obligations and argued that they did not require the criminalization of possession of cannabis.

What Mr. Gilmour did not stress was that 11 American states have already decriminalized possession of marijuana. Most did so between 1973 and 1981. The most recent analysis of U.S. drug laws that we have (1994) shows that those states have retained these policies. I understand from the U.S. National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) that these states cover about one-third of the American population.

In light of this situation in the United States, decriminalization would seem not to be a particularly radical step for Canada. Nor should this step draw any justifiable criticism from the United States on grounds that Canada was violating international law.

We note as well that the Premier's Drug Advisory Council in the state of Victoria, Australia, recommended three weeks ago that citizens of that state be permitted to (a) possess and use small quantities of marijuana -- 25 grams -- and (b) grow up to five plants at home. (Australian Associated Press, Melbourne, April 10, 1996).

Just two days ago, the same press service reported that Australian Health Minister, Michael Wooldridge, would back any state moving to decriminalize marijuana (AAP, Sydney, May 4, 1996).

2. The impact of decriminalization on rates of use

We enclose copies of several analyses of the impact of decriminalization:

    J. Morgan, D. Riley and G. Chesher, "Cannabis: Legal Reform, Medicinal Use and Harm Reduction", in N. Heather, ed., Psychoactive Drugs and Harm Reduction: From Faith to Science

    Diane Riley, "Decriminalization of Marijuana Use: Effects on Consumption and Harm" (paper presented at the Third International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm, Melbourne, 1992)

    E. Single, "The Impact of Marijuana Decriminalization", in Y. Israel, Research Advances in Alcohol and Drug Problems, (Vol. 6, 1981)

    The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, "The Impact of Marijuana Decriminalization -- An Update" (this is an updated version of Dr. Single's earlier paper)

    The Lindesmith Center, Exposing Marijuana Myths: A Review of the Scientific Evidence (1995).

    A. Trebach, "Their Spirit of Moderation and Experimentation is Unmatched", in A. Trebach and K. Zeese, ed., Drug Prohibition and the Conscience of Nations (1990).

Some of the salient points from Dr. Riley's 1992 paper:

    * there is very little evidence . . . that marijuana laws exert a strong deterrent effect on use (Riley, p. 1)

    * in surveys, most nonusers cite potential health hazards as the main reason for not using marijuana (Riley, pp. 2,7; see also the testimony of the Addiction Research Foundation before the Health Subcommittee on Bill C-7)

    * while decriminalization (in this case, replacement of the criminal law with a non-criminal ticketing scheme, like a parking ticket) may have led to modest increases in use in the short term, long term rates were not higher than in [U.S.] states that did not decriminalize (Riley, pp. 5-6)

    * in his 1989 review of decriminalization in the United States, Dr. Eric Single concluded, "In the decade prior to the enactment of decriminalization laws [in the U.S.], with the risk of arrests very low and marijuana readily available, trends in use appear to have been relatively unaffected by the existing criminal laws against possession. . . . Decriminalization measures have had little or no impact on rates of use but they have substantially reduced the social costs associated with the enforcement of marijuana laws" (Riley, p. 8)

    * in The Netherlands, where possession of small amounts of marijuana is not subject to prosecution, one survey at the end of the 1980s indicated that 12% of Dutch high-school students had used marijuana at least once in their lifetime -- far less than the 59% for the same age group in the United States, where marijuana possession is generally prohibited (Riley, p. 14)(the lifetime marijuana use rate for Canadians 15-19 is 23.2%: Health and Welfare Canada, Alcohol and Other Drug Use by Canadians: A National Alcohol and Other Drugs Survey (1989): Technical Report, at 83); in short, Dutch lifetime use rates among adolescents at the end of the 1980s were lower than those of adolescents in two countries that had strict laws against possession

    * use within the last month is also considerably lower in The Netherlands at the end of the 1980s-- 5.4% versus 29% in the United States (Riley, p. 14) (there are no comparable figures for Canada)

    * in South Australia, which introduced a ticketing system for possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1987, rates of use did not change (Riley, p. 15)

The Morgan, Riley and Chesher chapter in Psychoactive Drugs and Harm Reduction: From Faith to Science, concludes:

    The data from several countries indicate that cannabis reform is unlikely to be followed by an explosion of use. Such reform would result in significant cost savings in the criminal justice system and a profound reduction in the harmful criminalization of most users. (p. 226; see also pp. 219-222)

Furthermore, the authors challenge the conventional wisdom that marijuana is a "gateway" drug, leading to heroin or cocaine use:

    Perhaps 60 million Americans have tried marijuana yet slightly more than two thirds have never tried another illegal drug. Cannabis seems more often to be a closed gate than a gateway in that its use signals the terminus of illegal drug experimentation. (p. 217)

The Trebach article, "Their Spirit of Moderation and Experimentation is Unmatched", in Drug Prohibition and the Conscience of Nations, shows comparative 1989 survey results of drug use rates among Dutch and American adolescents. The figures differ somewhat from the figures mentioned in the reports we cited above. However, the trends identified by the figures are the same: Drug use rates -- marijuana, heroin, cocaine, stimulants, hallucinogens -- were generally substantially lower among adolescents in The Netherlands at the end of the 1980s than in the United States, despite the more relaxed Dutch laws.

The authors of the more recent (1995) Lindesmith Center report, Exposing Marijuana Myths: A Review of the Scientific Evidence, review several studies comparing use of marijuana by Dutch adolescents and American adolescents. They conclude (at page 15):

    Since liberalization [in The Netherlands], marijuana use has increased in the Netherlands, although rates remain similar to those in neighbouring European countries, and are generally lower than those in the United States.

Although rates of use have increased in The Netherlands, it is important to note that rates of use have also increased in other countries that have criminal prohibitions on possession. This finding is similar to the finding about rates of use in those American states that decriminalized; rates of use went up and down over time, just as they did in neighbouring states that kept strict criminal prohibitions on possession. Therefore, one cannot attribute the increase in use to decriminalization, since other countries or states with very strict criminal prohibitions witnessed similar increases.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse article, "The Impact of Marijuana Decriminalization -- An Update", concludes as follows about the American experience with decriminalization:

    The so-called "decriminalization" of marijuana does not appear to have had a major impact on rates of use, as many feared that it might have. On the other hand, it has resulted in substantial savings to drug enforcement with resources generally redirected to the enforcement of laws regarding other drugs. Although it cannot be claimed that "decriminalization" has eliminated the social costs and adverse individual consequences associated with marijuana prohibition, it would appear that "decriminalization" has succeeding in reducing the costs without increasing the health and safety risks. (at 5)

As mentioned earlier, the Premier's Drug Advisory Council in the state of Victoria, Australia, has just last month recommended that citizens of that state be permitted to possess and use small quantities of marijuana and that growing up to five plants at home would no longer be an offence.

Several days later, the Australian Associated Press reported that Australian Health Minister, Michael Wooldridge, would support any state if it moved to decriminalize the drug. The report quotes Mr. Wooldridge as saying: "South Australia and the ACT [Australian Capital Territory] have decriminalized already and the evidence from those two places would suggest that decriminalisation does not lead to increased usage." (AAP, Sydney, May 4, 1996)

3. The deterrent effect of the criminal law

The studies cited above all concluded that decriminalization does not significantly affect rates of use of cannabis. The corollary is that the criminal law does not significantly deter cannabis use. In fact, this is what the Addiction Research Foundation concluded when it appeared in May 1994 before the House of Commons subcommittee examining Bill C-7. The President of the Addiction Research Foundation noted:

    Canada is already one of the world's leaders in per capita drug arrests. About two-thirds of the convictions are for cannabis possession. However, they have very little deterrent value. A study has shown that only a year after their court appearances, 92% of cannabis users were again using the drug. Older, regular cannabis users have continued using it for years with little regard to the legal consequences. Users of any drug, in fact, tend to regard threats to their health by drug use as a greater deterrent than the risks of getting caught. [our emphasis] [Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence of the Sub-Committee on Bill C-7, May 10, 1994, at 2:23.]

4. Commissions on drug policy

Over the past century, dozens of studies of drug policy around the world have recommended a move away from criminal prohibition. We enclose a list of about 20 of the principal studies, along with an analysis of their recommendations done by one American drug policy reformer (we do not have the resources to be able to review and verify every statement made in his analysis, but we include the analysis in any event, since it may be instructive).

5. The harms of drug policies relating to other drugs

A move to decriminalize marijuana possession would represent a significant step forward in Canadian drug policy. However, such a move does not touch some of the most serious harms caused by our drug policies -- AIDS, hepatitis, the violence associated with the trade in opiates and cocaine, and the acquisitive crime associated with the need for those dependent on heroin or cocaine to maintain their dependencies at black market prices.

We urge this Committee to recognize these issues as among the most pressing in its review of Bill C-8. The toll in human life is simply too great for these harms of our current drug policies to be ignored. We need only refer the members of the Committee to yet another story of the devastation -- and that is not too strong a term -- related to drugs, this time in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (Globe and Mail, May 4, 1996: copy enclosed). Much of this devastation can be attributed to our failure as a country to look to social and health policy alternatives to the blunt, wasteful, and frequently counterproductive application of the criminal law. We urge the members of the Committee to speak out strongly against a status quo based on criminal prohibition, a status quo that is doing and will continue to do this country immense damage.

If you wish to discuss any of the points raised in this letter, we will be pleased to do so. In the meantime, thank you again for your interest in these important drug policy issues.

Yours truly,

Eugene Oscapella
for the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy

Converted by Andrew Scriven

Updated: 24 Jul 2001 | Accessed: 29774 times