Canada's marijuana laws: The debate over decriminalization
Lisa Khoo, CBC News Online
May 2001, updated May 2002


Ever since marijuana was first banned in Canada under the 1923 Opium and Drug Act, dissenters have called the criminal penalties set for possession of the drug too harsh.

Since May 1997 illicit drugs such as marijuana have been covered by the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which a growing number of people in Canada want scrapped.

In August 2000, Ontario's court of appeal ruled that banning marijuana for medicinal purposes violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In July 2001, Canada became the first country to adopt a system regulating the medicinal use of marijuana.

But the debate over recreational use rages on. The Canadian Medical Association estimates that 1.5 million Canadians smoke marijuana recreationally.

Committees debate changes to law

Two committees are now studying what – if any – changes should be made. The most recent committee was established by all-party agreement May 17, 2001 to rethink the factors "underlying or relating to the non-medical use of drugs in Canada." The debate on decriminalization is expected to be part of the committee's broader goal of looking into criminal activity in the drug trade. It has 18 months to report back. The government says it won't make any changes to the law before then.

A long-standing special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs, headed by Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, is holding hearings on the issue as well. In May 2002, the committee presented a "discussion paper," summarizing the scientific evidence and opinion on marijuana, including:

  • Marijuana is "not a gateway" to harder drug, such as cocaine and heroine
  • Fewer than 10 per cent of users become addicted
  • A lot of public money is spent on law enforcement, even though public policies don't seem to discourage use of drug

The committee will hold public meetings across the country this spring and summer and will deliver its final report in August 2002.

On May 19, 2001, then-Justice Minister Anne McLellan said she is "quite open" to a debate on both decriminalization and legalization. And the federal health minister at the time, Allan Rock, also said it's time for "frank discussion" on whether the laws should be changed.

Some people don't want any changes to the laws. Others are pushing for complete legalization. In between, there are people who favour what's known as decriminalization. They want to keep the rules but lower the penalties from criminal to a civil level, like getting a traffic ticket – no criminal record would be kept.

That's currently the case in the Netherlands.

An estimated 600,000 Canadians have criminal records for marijuana possession.

Liberalization: those in favour …

The liberalization movement got its first big boost in 1973 in a report by a federal government commission looking into the non-medical use of drugs. The LeDain Commission called for an end to charges for marijuana possession and cultivation.

In May 2001, Progressive Conservative party leader Joe Clark became the latest senior-level politician to take up the cause. He said young people caught with marijuana shouldn't have to carry the stigma of a criminal record for life. Both the NDP and Bloc Québécois favour decriminalization as well.

Several other groups call the penalties, which could include a jail term of up to five years, too harsh. The Canadian Medical Association backed that position in an editorial pointing out that a criminal record effectively bars young people from getting jobs and opportunities, including getting into medical school. It called the health effects of moderate use "minimal."

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has also advocated decriminalization, saying prosecuting people for small amounts ties up scarce resources.

… and those against

But other police groups and anti-drug associations vehemently disagree with that assessment.

Among the most recent to speak out was the Canadian Police Association. During testimony to the Senate Special committee, Executive Director David Griffin said most first-time offenders don't get criminal records.

The association is concerned that decriminalization would also lead to increased use of hard drugs.

A May 2000 survey done by COMPAS for the National Post newspaper found that 65 per cent of people said the concept of decriminalizing marijuana is an excellent, very good, or good idea. Twenty-two per cent responded negatively.

Another poll done by University of Lethbridge professor Reginald Bibby said support for legalization has risen to 47 per cent among Canadians.

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