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On opposite side of border, opposite side of pot issue

Published Sep. 4, 2005

Depending on which side of the U.S.-Canadian border you're on, the winds of change are either blowing hard or barely at all when it comes to legalizing marijuana.

In Canada, a Senate committee stunned the country in September when it said anyone over 16 should be allowed to smoke marijuana. The recommendation was all the more startling because it came not from a group of 20-something potheads but lawmakers with an average age of 64.

But on Nov. 5, voters in Nevada overwhelmingly rejected a measure that would have made it the first state to legalize marijuana use. Also defeated were a decriminalization move in Arizona and a treatment-instead-of-jail proposal in Ohio.

The votes were a blow to well-financed efforts to bring America closer in line with other Western countries that treat marijuana use more as a public health issue than a criminal one. Backers of Nevada's Question 9 _ who included billionaire financier George Soros _ noted that 11-million Americans regularly smoke marijuana and argued that they should not be treated as criminals.

Given its image as a free-wheeling place where gambling and prostitution have long been allowed, Nevada seemed the logical starting point for a nationwide push to legalize marijuana. Had it been approved Nov. 5 and again in 2004, the measure would have let adults possess up to 3 ounces of marijuana, and required the Legislature to regulate it much like alcohol and tobacco.

But U.S. drug czar John Walters made two trips to Nevada, adding his voice to opponents who claimed legalization would encourage "drug tourism" and add to the already high number of traffic deaths caused by drivers purportedly stoned on marijuana. The defeat of Question 9 was also attributed in part to a larger-than-usual turnout by Republicans, who tend to be more conservative.

Some legalization foes saw the Nevada vote as a sign Americans have become more introspective since the Sept. 11 attacks and now realize that drugs, like terrorists, are destructive to their cherished way of life.

"Drugs destroy people, families, communities and can ultimately destroy nations," said Calvina Fay of the St. Petersburg-based Drug Free America Foundation.

But backers of Question 9 aren't giving up. While surprised by the margin of the Nevada defeat, they were cheered that voters in San Francisco overwhelmingly asked the city to explore providing marijuana to seriously ill patients. California and several other states already have medical marijuana laws, and efforts are under way to add New York, Vermont and Maryland to the list in the next few years.

"We've always spent most of our time on medical marijuana and a little bit of time on broader issues, and I think that's going to remain the same," says Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, the Washington, D.C., organization that sponsored Question 9.

Kampia says the project plans to "dump a couple hundred thousand dollars" onto another front: legalizing, or at least decriminalizing, marijuana use in Canada. Although that country has long been more tolerant of marijuana than the United States, no one expected the Senate committee to recommend changes that would make Canada's laws the most liberal in the world.

"In many ways prohibition is a cop-out," Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin said in releasing the panel's report, which found that the marijuana ban has fueled organized crime but done little to curb use. About 20,000 people are arrested in Canada each year on marijuana-related charges.

Although the verdict is still out on marijuana's health effects, scientific evidence indicates it is "substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but a social and public health issue," Nolin said.

While stressing it did not condone drug use, the committee said smoking marijuana should be a personal choice and recommended it be available to anyone over 16 through a regulatory system like that for alcohol. The senators also urged amnesty for the 600,000 Canadians with marijuana-related convictions.

Although the report was hailed by many _ "I'm blown away," said Mark Emery, Canada's best-known pot activist _ it also drew sharp criticism. "It's a back-to-school gift for drug pushers," David Griffin of the Canadian Police Association told the Toronto Star.

In deciding whether to change the law, Canada's Parliament will also consider a soon-to-be-released report by a House of Commons committee. It is expected to recommend the less drastic step of decriminalizing marijuana use _ imposing fines but not jail time.

Any move to loosen Canadian drug laws will be opposed by the United States, which is already struggling to contain the huge flow of marijuana from British Columbia. But Kampia of the Marijuana Policy Project predicts Canada will resist U.S. pressure and decriminalize marijuana by summer. And that, he says, would boost efforts to do the same on this side of the border.

"Canadian culture is so similar to American that if Canadians can do it, why can't we? I think it will send a positive message to the American people that marijuana policy reform is not such a crazy idea."

_ Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

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