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Jewish World Review Nov. 24, 2003 / 29 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders
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O Canada, O Cannabis | "I don't think a kid 17 years old, who has a joint, should have a criminal record," departing Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien told The New York Times last week. I'm no Chretien fan, but on this, I must agree.

Who would have thought that when my generation came of age, U.S. marijuana laws would be basically what they were when we were young? Or that significant taxpayer dollars would be spent to prosecute and incarcerate users?

On his way out of Canada's highest office, Chretien proposed a Cannabis Reform Bill — dubbed "soft pot'' legislation — to change the penalty for possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana from jail time to fines of $150 for adults and $100 for minors. Reports conflict as to whether Canadian lawmakers will approve this piece of "legacy" legislation.

But it's clear the Bush administration strongly opposes any softening of drug policy across the border, lest it increase drug use in the U.S.A. Too bad: Americans might benefit by seeing what happens in a Canada that has, in essence, decriminalized personal possession of marijuana.

Maybe the results won't all be rosy. Consider the seedy side of Amsterdam, where coffee shops legally sell cannabis. Ditto Oakland's "Oaksterdam" — a district so dubbed for its medical marijuana clubs — to which recreational users and robbers have flocked. A gay and lesbian youth center was so concerned about marijuana smoke wafting around the noses of vulnerable youths that it closed its Oaksterdam office. The executive director told the San Francisco Chronicle, "When drugs are in the area, everything else comes with it."

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Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, doesn't buy the seedy argument. Cities invite blight, he said; it's not the drugs.

Nadelmann noted that many marijuana advocates oppose Chretien's measure because it doesn't legalize marijuana, or tax or regulate the drug. Still, he said: "I think that decriminalization is an improvement over the current policy of the drug war and arresting hundreds of thousands of people," even if decriminalization introduces gray areas into the law.

The benefits of decriminalization, however, should not be underestimated. In 2001, police arrested more than 700,000 people for marijuana violations, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report — 88 percent for simple possession. Once they are prosecuted, users have to live with the stigma of an arrest record, which could bar them from entering certain professions and even qualifying for student loans.

As the federal and state coffers hit the red, there are budgetary issues, too. There's the small cost of jailing first-time offenders as they are arrested.

Worse, there is the large cost of sending parolees back to prison, not because they committed serious crimes for which they should be thrown behind bars but because they flunked drug tests. A recent Little Hoover Commission report found that California wastes close to $1 billion annually supervising and returning parolees to prison for minor parole violations.

The best reason for decriminalization is Chretien's hypothetical 17-year-old.

I understand why parents fear that readily available marijuana might hinder their child's development, and so they support the current system. But it is clear that marijuana, while illegal, is readily available.

According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, more than 50 percent of high-school seniors reported having tried an illicit drug. I don't think many readers would argue that America would be a better country if all of those students were arrested and prosecuted.

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© 2003, Creators Syndicate