John Walters, U.S. director of national drug policy, speaks at a meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence on Wednesday in Quebec City. (CP/Jacques Boissinot)

QUEBEC (CP) - Now's the time to step up the war against marijuana, not to decriminalize it, not to use it for medicinal purposes and certainly not to make it legal, the United States' drug-policy chief said Wednesday.

Canada is free to have its medicinal-marijuana program but the drug is dangerous and the American government doesn't agree with the idea, said John Walters, director of national drug policy and cabinet member under President George W. Bush. Marijuana is the most heavily abused drug in the U.S. and addiction rates have risen in recent years, he said during a two-day trip to Canada. "People my age - baby-boomers who have children - do not believe that's possible," Walters told an international meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence.

"They went to college, they watched movies like Reefer Madness, they had friends who experimented and they do not believe that you can have a dependency on marijuana.

"We have research that suggests otherwise."

Of the 4.3 million Americans suffering drug addiction, 65 per cent are dependent on marijuana, he said.

"If we're going to effectively face the dependency problem in the United States today, we have to begin doing a better job with marijuana, as well as cocaine, alcohol and the other drugs of abuse," Walters added.

Arguments about marijuana include whether to approve the drug for medicinal purposes, to fully legalize it or to decriminalize it, which means the drug would not be legal but users would not be penalized.

In Canada, the federal government has taken a more liberal approach to marijuana.

More than 250 Canadians have clearance to smoke marijuana provided by the federal government. Ottawa amended drug laws last year to allow such clearance for patients with conditions such as HIV, cancer, and multiple sclerosis.

Also, a federal Senate committee on illegal drugs will release a report in August following public hearings. The committee chairman, Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, and Tory Leader Joe Clark have called for the decriminalization of marijuana.

Canada can do what it wants - as long as it doesn't affect the U.S., Walters said.

"Canada's decision about how it handles this or other issues of regulated substance is its decision. We respect that," Walters told reporters.

"(But) it certainly could become a problem if the trade is able to use our borders as a vehicle to enhance their effectiveness to move drugs across the border."

As for medicinal marijuana, there are better ways to treat patients than providing them with pot, he said.

"We have the most sophisticated and capable medical system in the history of humankind. Smoked marijuana is not likely to be a modern medicine."

Proponents of decriminalization dismiss the war on drugs as a waste of time and money.

Marijuana leaves no long-term effects on most users, and an estimated 30 to 50 per cent of Canadians aged 15 to 24 have used the drug despite its illegality, critics say.

Meanwhile, Canadian federal agencies spend about $500 million each year to fight drugs and more than 30,000 people are charged with simple possession annually, the Senate committee said in a preliminary report last month.

But opponents of decriminalization note that most addicted hard-drug users start with marijuana.


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