Legalization the only way to win drug war

By Jon Ferry, The Province August 26, 2009

The news last weekend that Mexico has moved quietly to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and other currently illegal drugs has clearly been a hit with Metro Vancouver drug users.

That’s not so much because of the immediate impact the new law will have on Mexico’s drug cartels, but because of what it says about U.S. President Barack Obama’s longer-term approach towards the war on drugs and the possibility that "drug prohibition" is gradually lifting.

"Everybody in the movement is happy that it’s happened," said Jeremiah Vandermeer, editor of Vancouver-based Cannabis Culture magazine, noting that small-scale decriminalization is far from outright legalization, but is a step in the right direction.

And it does signal an important change in attitude. As Christian Science Monitor reporter Sara Miller Llana points out, three years ago a similar Mexican initiative died amid a storm of controversy, with Mexico being portrayed as going to pot.

Now, in the midst of drug warfare that’s claimed thousands of lives, the initiative has quietly become law, with hardly a peep of concern.

There is some question, however, whether the move to let people possess a small amount of drugs for "personal use" (five grams is the maximum amount of pot allowed) will curb the violence. SFU criminology professor Neil Boyd suggests it might make matters worse.

"Decriminalization of use will do nothing with respect to the issue of demand, and will only benefit people who are already involved in the trade," Boyd told me.

I’m more hopeful, though, if only because I don’t think the type of drug-related bloodshed Mexico has seen, and the kind we’ve witnessed in Metro Vancouver recently, can get much worse.

For the gang violence here, we have only ourselves to blame. Our slavishly liberal, hippy-dippy attitudes towards drugs have blinded us to the dangers of the monster lurking in our midst. And we now have to clean up a terrible mess.

To do this, Ottawa cannot act alone or simply resurrect the bill the federal Liberals introduced in 2003 to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Far bolder, broader action is required.

Canada must work with the U.S., Mexico and other like-minded countries to end the unwinnable drug war and reach a historic agreement to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana … and possibly other drugs.

Vandermeer favours legalization and regulation of all drugs. But I agree with Boyd that some — such as crystal meth and crack cocaine — are simply too harmful to be legalized.

Marijuana, though, could be sold to adults under strict controls and with stern health warnings that would put it on much the same footing as tobacco.

Tobacco remains a legal drug. But because of mounting public concern about its harmful health effects and the public nuisance its drifting smoke causes, it’s effectively been driven into the margins of society.

Let’s hope that, with a similarly enlightened and disciplined government approach, marijuana and other currently illegal drugs can soon join it there.

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