Belleville – About 60 people attended a panel discussion on resolving marijuana prohibition at the Organic Underground in Belleville last week.
Led by Marc-Boris St. Maurice of NORML Canada (The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), the Thursday night panel featured four speakers: Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society; Lynne Belle-Isle of the Canadian AIDS Society; Al Graham of Marijuana Awareness; and Gary Magwood, local co-ordinator and public relations officer for the Green Party of Canada. They discussed four areas relating to lifting the prohibition on cannabis.
Panelists expressed mixed views on whether legalization would boost the economy. St. Maurice pointed out that the prohibition of alcohol was lifted in the 1930s during the Great Depression and initially he believed the answer to the economic downturn would be the legalization of marijuana. However, through research and discussions, he has come to believe that might not be the case, especially if people were allowed to grow their own plants. He does, however, believe the money and resources being used on enforcement of the laws could be diverted elsewhere.
Jones agreed, saying reducing the scale of criminality and the rate of conviction would result in a cost saving.
“If the cost goes down people spending money on marijuana will have more money in their pockets to spend elsewhere,” he added.
In discussing the health and medicinal properties of the drug, St. Maurice pointed out the "hypocrisy" of medical marijuana being restricted because recreational use is prohibited.
Cannabis is beneficial in the treatment of a number of conditions including epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and aiding digestion. The seeds also contain protein and the oil contains essential fatty acids.
Belle-Isle, who was part of the committee that developed Health Canada’s Medical Marijauna Program, said the program came about because of a court decision making it a constitutional right after people said it was their medicine of choice. She said the plant has been used medicinally for millennia.
Currently the stigma and lack of knowledge creates barriers even for those people licensed by Health Canada to use the drug.
Belle-Isle said there is even a lack of scientific knowledge as there is only one source of the plant available for research through Health Canada, although there are different varieties grown elsewhere.
“Prohibition is slowing down research,” she said.
In a show of hands more than 10 people at the session indicated they were medicinal marijuana users. One woman who revealed she was an addict said cannabis provides an alternative to the methadone and morphine used to treat her drug habit.
Jones said it is difficult to study the health benefits as the drug is “psychoactive across a range of conditions.” He said when this type of medicine is brought into the picture many people in the medical community “get freaked out.”
Belle-Isle said there is no known toxic doses of cannabis and it is safe compared to even table salt, one reason she is comfortable advocating for the plant to be viewed as a natural health product rather than a pharmaceutical.
“Theoretically you would have to have 1,500 pounds in 15 minutes to kill yourself,” Belle-Isle said. She also said HIV studies have shown that cannabis has very little interaction with other medications.
Graham, a Campbellford resident who has Crohn's disease, said he uses medicinal marijuana to help with pain, appetite, sleep, and for the calming affect, as stress is a big part of the disease. He said even for someone with a licence it can be difficult to get a doctor to agree to prescribe cannabis and there is still the stigma of using it.
Magwood mentioned what he called a “really interesting dichotomy” – Veterans Affairs Canada has begun to cover the costs of medicinal marijuana for some veterans and soldiers coming back from war.
As for evidence that people with existing mental health issues can have those exacerbated by cannabis, Jones said the same is true of alcohol.
“All drugs are harmful to some people, in some doses in some circumstances,” Jones said, adding cannabis is one of the safest.
“If cannabis caused psychosis we would see a lot more.”
He said the longer use of cannabis if put off, until late teens or early twenties, the less risk there is of developing problems.
St. Maurice said he thinks the government is scared to research cannabis because it will find positive aspects to something it has been against for 75 years or so.
In a discussion on social justice and marijuana use, St. Maurice said prohibition exercises a negative affect on society by labelling millions of cannabis users as criminals.
As a political scientist and democrat, Jones said he believes the government needs to find a way to “re-regulate” illicit drugs, saying the most harm they cause arises through prohibition.
“Organized crime and organized repression are the two most anti-democratic things,” Jones said.
St. Maurice said harsher penalties around cannabis discourage small growers and result in more hardcore use and criminal activity.
Jones said Canadians are more fortunate than people in some other countries as there are millions of users but only tens of thousands of arrests and even fewer convictions.
In order to enact policy change St. Maurice believes conversations need to take place and language needs to be developed to approach and convince those who don’t understand the issue.
Belle-Isle said when she discusses her work at social gatherings people show a “thirst for knowledge.”
She said people need to be able to talk about the issue.
“I’m a strong believer in social norms and I don’t think the model now is good for our children,” Belle-Isle said. She said being introduced to alcohol at home as a teenager by having a glass of wine with dinner and having her first beer with her dad didn't create a need to go out and get drunk when she reached legal age.
Jones said the John Howard Society does not want to encourage more cannabis use, rather moderate and safe use. He also does not want to see cannabis or any other drug fall into the private sector. He said he favours a regulated supply of some kind.
“In my opinion the most important thing with re-regulation would be to take it out of the hands of criminals and out of the hands of police,” Jones said.
Using the analogy of gay rights, Magwood encouraged people to “come out” about cannabis use.
“Make it part of everyday conversation, make it normal,” he said.
He also advocated for people to lobby politicians at every level.
Jones said the letter that goes to the top of the pile is one to your MP indicating you are thinking of changing your vote.
More information about the move to resolve prohibition is available at www.norml.ca.
By Janet Richards
MaY 25, 2009