CN ON: Column: Marijuana Debate Could Add Spark To Commons
Pubdate: Fri, 16 Mar 2001
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2001 The Toronto Star
Address: One Yonge St., Toronto ON, M5E 1E6
Fax: (416) 869-4322
Author: Chantal Hebert
MARIJUANA DEBATE COULD ADD SPARK TO COMMONS
OTTAWA - ONE would never argue that Prime Minister Jean Chretien is
an activist. As he told his cabinet early in his tenure, in his book,
the best ministers are those who manage to keep legislation to a
If anything, over the years, Chretien's penchant for inertia has
increased. As a result, the notion of Parliament engaging the country
in a national discussion on any hot topic at his government's
initiative has become almost moot.
Now, the House of Commons is about to be once again confirmed in its
growing irrelevancy as the government gets set to bypass Parliament
on the road to making the country's marijuana law constitutional.
Last year, the Ontario Court of Appeal ordered the federal government
to rewrite its law on marijuana possession before next July 31 or see
it struck from the books. In particular, the court wants the legal
status of those who need marijuana for medical reasons clarified.
But rather than legalize marijuana possession or sale for therapeutic
purposes, sources say Chretien is about to go the regulation route.
The law, as written, would stand but exemptions would be built in so
as to allow those who smoke marijuana as a part of a medical
treatment, as well as groups such as "compassion clubs" that provide
it to them, to enjoy immunity from prosecution.
This back-door approach means the debate will be restricted to
bureaucrats and courts with Parliament kept out of the wider issue of
whether Canada's approach to marijuana is outdated.
And while sidestepping that debate is clearly the government's goal,
it is a missed opportunity in many more ways than one.
The opposition parties have all expressed interest in debating the
marijuana law with MPs of all persuasions introducing a variety of
private members' bills on the issue. Indeed, at the initiative of
Tory Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin, a senate committee has been set up
to look into legalizing marijuana use. But as instructive as the
Senate discussion might be, it will hardly have the high profile a
government-led Commons debate would have.
Among the issues begging exploration, the NDP, for instance, would
surely want to know whether the United States' vehement opposition to
any loosening of Canadian drug laws accounts for the government's
shyness about having the issue debated.
Down in Washington, any baby step on the part of Canada to remove
cannabis from the list of legally prohibited substances is bound to
be seen as sabotage of the American so-called war on drugs.
With their strong interest in law and order issues, the Canadian
Alliance and the Tories can only be concerned by the energy
squandered by both the police and the courts as they deal with
thousands of marijuana offenders every year - mostly by giving them a
slap on the wrist - all at the expense of tackling serious crimes.
The Canadian Association of Police Chiefs, for one, has long asked
federal legislators to consider writing out of the Criminal Code
marijuana possession for individual use.
As for the Bloc Quebecois, it makes a good case for finding ways to
get the marijuana cash cow out of the hands of organized crime groups
who squat on farmers' lands to grow cannabis and terrorize them in
the process. In Quebec, biker gangs have basically cornered the
On a wider scale, access to and consumption of marijuana is an issue
that has increasing resonance in the life of Canadians.
As they grow older and sicker, baby boomers are bound to rediscover
the drug of choice of their youth. Already, a variety of seniors'
associations have taken up the cause of freer access to marijuana.
At the other end of the age scale, the current law is not stopping
young people from experimenting with cannabis but, as health
activists point out, it is preventing teenagers from being informed
properly about where to draw the line between recreational use and
Much as a previous generation was often advised to deal with the
sexual revolution by preaching abstinence to its children, today's
parents are expected to act as though a blanket condemnation of
marijuana would keep it out of their offspring's environment.
While Canada is unlikely to have cannabis on offer alongside tobacco
and alcohol anytime soon, if ever, a parliamentary debate could only
lead to a better-informed public and, eventually, a less hypocritical
Not to mention the golden opportunity for parliamentarians on all
sides of the issue to show a new generation of voters that the House
of Commons is not really just another of the national capital's many