Exploring Canada's prohibition crisis
// Sarah Vitet

Lalanya Blue McGraw was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 2001, after a biopsy revealed that small growths in her chest and neck were cancerous. Her condition was serious, and death was a very real potential outcome, though there were treatment options available.

“I was told that there were medical treatments which had proven highly successful for curing this type of cancer at its stage, and I quickly began a protocol of chemotherapy followed by radiation,” says McGraw. The cancer responded by shrinking in size at first, but then began to grow again. They tried several chemotherapy drugs and two bone marrow transplants, with little success.

“In 2009, I joined the B.C. Compassion Club Society and started using cannabis frequently to help with my symptoms of the cancer and the side effects of chemotherapy,” says McGraw. Cannabis helped relieve her nausea and pain, as well as increasing her appetite and aiding with sleeping. “What I didn't anticipate,” says McGraw, “was that it appeared to slow the progression of my cancer.”

Though the Cancer Agency had exhausted all their treatments for her, McGraw’s use of medical marijuana seemed to make a huge difference in the growth of the cancer cells. “My oncologist had no explanation but simply said ‘whatever it is you're doing, keep it up.’ And I did just that,” says McGraw.

However, there are drawbacks to using medical marijuana. “I know of people who were denied life-saving surgeries because of their choice to practice this illegal pain management,” says McGraw. She also knows people who have had doctors refuse to sign forms on their behalf: “I have another friend who passed away recently with a ferocious spirit, but a petite, frail, and weakened body that could no longer fight harder than the cancer,” says McGraw. “With all that she was doing to defy the odds, she didn't have the energy or time to go through the steps of obtaining permission to use cannabis from a dispensary, and she was uneasy with the inconsistency and risk of buying off of the street, so to speak.”

The illegality of marijuana often scares patients away from using it, and because it hasn’t been studied in combination with other medications, doctors cannot always confirm that using medical marijuana won’t cause complications. People are often unwilling to take that risk.

“The tragic losses are too plentiful and painful for me to continue to list them,” says McGraw. “I'm left with the insight to say with conviction that because marijuana is illegal in Canada, people that I know, love, and miss greatly were denied direly needed comfort.”
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The chief medical health officers in British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan recently published a paper in Open Medicine analyzing Canada’s illicit drug policies. They concluded that criminalization of marijuana and other drugs has not worked, and that an alternative model should be implemented, such as regulation and taxation.

“The use of illegal drugs remains a serious threat to community health,” the paper reads. “However, despite the substantial social costs attributable to illegal drugs, a well-described discordance between scientific evidence and policy exists in this area, such that most resources go to drug law enforcement activities that have not been well evaluated.”

They point out that when the Office of the Auditor General of Canada last reviewed Canada’s drug strategy in 2001, it estimated thatof the $454 million spent annually on efforts to control illicit drugs, $426 million (93.8 per cent) was devoted to law enforcement.

The report was in part a response to Bill C-10, which imposed mandatory minimum sentencing for minor drug law offenses. Despite the estimated $1 trillion dollars that the United States has spent on their war on drugs, it has widely been shown to be ineffective.

“In addition,” the paper reads, “although reducing the availability of cannabis has been a central focus of drug law enforcement efforts, over the past 30 years of cannabis prohibition the drug has remained 'almost universally available to American 12th graders,' according to US drug use surveillance systems funded by the US National Institutes of Health, with 80–90 per cent of survey respondents saying that the drug is “very easy” or “fairly easy” to obtain.”

In February 2012, a group of former B.C. attorney generals wrote an open letter stating that cannabis prohibition is a failed policy, and should be ended. “Thanks to the police intelligence efforts of organizations such as the RCMP, it is now commonly accepted knowledge that marijuana prohibition drives organized crime and related violence in B.C.,” the letter states. This followed a similar letter written by former Vancouver mayors in November 2011, also condemning marijuana prohibition.

"We need to acknowledge that our current approach to some of our substance-use policies is perhaps not as evidence-based as it should be," said Dr. Paul Hasselback, chair of the Health Officers' Council of B.C.
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In May 2010, Marc Emery was extradited to the United States by the Canadian government to stand trial on conspiracy charges. He is currently in Federal prison in Mississippi, with an earliest release date of July 2014.

“He [Marc] is Canadian, paid his taxes on seed sales, was well-known for what he did, never hid anything, and he never left Canada, so it was a big shock to most Canadians and people worldwide that American law enforcement could arrest somebody in Canada and have them face life in prison,” says Jodie Emery, Marc Emery’s wife and current manager of the Marc Emery’s Cannabis Culture Headquarters store, the BCMP Vapour Lounge, Pot TV, and Cannabis
Culture magazine.

While operating in Vancouver, Marc Emery was “sending seeds all over the world, bringing millions of dollars in to finance ballot initiatives, political parties, conferences, all sorts of peaceful democratic activities and activism,” explains Jodie Emery. Through public speaking and activism, Emery continues to advocate for marijuana legalization.

“The war on drugs is incarcerating millions of people all over the world who never hurt anybody,” says Emery. She also notes the benefits of cannabis, including the properties of industrial hemp, as well as medical marijuana. Emery explains that the stress-relieving benefits marijuana has on users can be extremely beneficial to overall health.

“People who smoke a joint aren’t going to get angry or violent, they are going to sit on the couch and eat chips. Everybody jokes about that, but it’s because there’s truth to it,” she says. “If anything can reduce your stress levels, that extends your life … eating healthy, or doing healthy activities, or using cannabis can reduce your stress level, which can extend your life and reduce the likelihood of getting sick. So in that sense, marijuana should be used by people if it works well for them.”
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Despite growing public opinion in support of the legalization of marijuana, the legislation regarding minor drug charges has recently become more severe, rather than less. “We know that more and more Canadians under Harper’s government are going to be going to prison,” says Emery. “Bill C-10, including mandatory minimums, is guaranteeing that we are going to see a lot of non-violent Canadians put in prison, and even more worrisome is that private prison companies, who have never operated in Canada before, are now meeting with our government.”

The effects of privatized prisons are clear in the United States, where the prison industry is the fastest growing industry, and prisoners labour at extremely low wages while free citizen unemployment rates climb.

“They are for-profit companies that exist on the stock market, and they have to guarantee that their prisons are always full,” says Emery. The emphasis is taken away from prevention and rehabilitation, and new laws are lobbied for by private prison companies, rather than created out of necessity.

In 2008, two judges in Pennsylvania pled guilty to accepting bribes from the owners of two for-profit juvenile facilities. Called the “Kids for cash” scandal, the judges accepted $2.6 million in return for imposing harsh sentences for juveniles brought before their courts. “So we’ve got this serious corruption that goes on, where law enforcement is being bought out by prison industries to ensure that people are being put in prison,” says Emery. “That is immoral and unjust in the extreme, and unfortunately that is going to happen here.”

Although Emery does agree that violent criminals are often given sentences more lenient than they are perceived to deserve, she notes that it is often due to incorrectly followed procedure. “The reason that so many of those dangerous people aren’t being dealt with properly is that 70 per cent of all court resources are used for smaller, nonviolent drug offences,” says Emery. If prohibition were ended, the justice system would be able to function optimally. According to Emery, imposing harsher sentences for nonviolent criminals is not the solution.

“This prohibition isn’t working to make streets safer, it’s not working to get rid of gangs,” says Emery. “You have to wonder why prohibition continues, if all the proof shows that it’s not helping solve problems, it’s only helping to make certain people really rich. So that raises some questions.”

According to RCMP Superintendent Ray Bernoties, in a speech made to the Canadian University Press on Mar. 3, “No decision we make today is going to make gang violence go away. There isn’t one black and white answer.” He pointed out that there are still illegal tobacco and alcohol industries, mostly operating in rural areas. Bernoties also noted that the gang-run marijuana trade in B.C. often exports to other countries, so simply ending prohibition in Canada would not eliminate organized crime activity.

“Gangs will be violent no matter what the substance,” says Bernoties. He does note, however, that many of the problems associated with drug use are health care related, particularly addiction. “For me,” says Bernoties, “the answers to crime have very little to do with law enforcement.”
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Although many people agree that prohibition in Canada is harmful and should be changed, there is no true consensus on what model should replace it, particularly in regards to cannabis. Some people believe that marijuana should be regulated and taxed, similarly to alcohol and tobacco, while others believe that marijuana should be able to be grown by anyone, like any other plant.

"For the last decade, Portugal has decriminalized all drug use and they have some of the lowest rates of drug use in Europe and they have some of the least amounts of harm from drug use," said Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical health officer, in a CBC article. Strang is one of the authors of the Open Medicine paper suggesting that marijuana ought to be taxed and regulated.

“From this point forward there’s a lot of discussion and ideas and debate that need to take place,” says Emery. “Unfortunately, prohibition is easier to keep in place … its a lot easier than doing such a drastic overhaul that would have consequences in everybody’s lives.”

McGraw hopes that cannabis can be legalized, and that the transition and function of the new model be derived from a variety of perspectives. “I would ultimately like to grow my own cannabis at home and make my own medicine from my organically grown plants,” she says. “I think that's a fair aspiration and I believe that legalization should incorporate that option.”
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In regards to other illicit drugs, many experts suggest that prohibition is doing more harm than good. “The criminalization of people who use drugs continues to prove ineffective in reducing rates of drug use and has instead contributed to substantial health-related harms,” states the Open Medicine paper. A recent study by the World Health Organization concluded that countries that had stricter illegal drug policies for users did not have lower levels of use than those with more tolerant policies.

“There are a lot of activities that people can do that can kill them. Eating peanuts, my goodness: peanuts kill people every single day, so let’s make those illegal, and send all the peanut farmers to jail. Of course nobody is proposing that, because it wouldn’t make sense,” says Emery. “The best approach is just to educate about proper, healthy use for activities, and help those who face problems with any sort of activity. When it comes to illegal drugs, they should be legal, and regulated too.”

For McGraw, the war on drugs has not only resulted in the suffering of many of her friends, it continues to put people at risk of not getting the relief they need. “I am one of the fortunate ones,” says McGraw. “I had a doctor who did not to hesitate to sign the forms on my behalf, given the severity of my case.” For others, the option to use medical marijuana is impeded by the prohibition.

Although there is a long history of marijuana activists advocating for legalization, more recently many non-marijuana-users have been speaking out against prohibition in Canada, which highlights the growing severity of the situation. “For the safety of everybody, and also for economic reasons,” says Emery. “It doesn’t make sense to continue keeping marijuana illegal.”

//Sarah Vitet, editor-in-chief
//Graphics by Faye Alexander

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