Wed, July 11, 2007
Politics and potheads
By Mindelle Jacobs
Next year will mark a century since the 1908 Opium Act and Canada's initial tortuous, costly and fruitless attempt to use the law as a whip to scare people off illicit drugs.
The UN's 2007 World Drug Report is the latest in a long list of studies to underscore the futility of the war on drugs.
Pot consumption in Canada is higher than just about anywhere else in the world, according to the UN, which noted that 16.8% of Canadians aged 15 to 64 used cannabis in 2004.
Only four other countries reported higher rates - Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, Ghana and Zambia.
Then there was the Canadian Press story earlier this week that revealed that the number of people busted for pot possession has jumped by more than one-third in several Canadian cities.
This double dose of reality is further proof that the Harper government should have adopted the Liberals' plan to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Instead, the Conservatives have stubbornly stuck to a law-enforcement approach - blind to history and deaf to the pleas of medical and public policy experts for reform to our drug laws.
But are we really a nation of potheads? Not really, says Benedikt Fischer, a drug and public health expert at the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C.
Prevalence figures such as those cited in the UN study are inflated indicators because they show only the percentage of people who have consumed an illicit drug at least once in the past year, he points out.
Many of the 16.8% of Canadians who said they smoked pot may have only done it once in the past 12 months, Fischer says.
It's like asking people if they've run a red light in the last year - almost everybody has done it on occasion - and concluding that Canada has a major problem with red-light violators, he says.
It's impossible to conclude that 16.8% of Canadians are frequent pot users, emphasizes Fischer. "I'm not worried a great deal about someone who smokes a joint a couple of times a year or even once a month. That, for public health, is almost irrelevant."
The UN study doesn't include patterns of use so the statistics are useless from a public health perspective, he adds.
While many other countries have smaller pot use prevalence rates than Canada, those populations may actually be smoking a lot more pot than Canadians, he says.
Nevertheless, the report suggests that Canadians don't care what the law says about marijuana. They're going to smoke pot anyway. The possibility of punishment, in other words, has no deterrent effect whatsoever.
As far as marijuana is concerned, Canadians think the law is an ass. And that isn't going to change.
"Over the last 10 years, cannabis, despite the law ... has become an accepted mainstream cultural substance," says Fischer, adding that it's the third most popular psychoactive substance next to alcohol and tobacco.
"For many people, it's actually replacing tobacco use, which I think in many ways is actually good for public health," he says.
Only 0.6% of the world's illicit drug users are considered problem drug users and the major worrisome drugs are heroin and cocaine.
So why aren't we spending the bulk of our drug-strategy money on prevention as well as treatment for the worst addicts crippled by the worst drugs?
Instead, three-quarters of the federal money earmarked for the war on drugs goes to law enforcement, treatment programs remain chronically underfunded and we continue to arrest harmless potheads.