Volume 92, Issue 41

Tuesday, November 17, 1998

no. 1 where it counts


FOCUS
 

Hurting or healing - should marijuana be legalized?



Dipesh Mistry/Gazette


By Dara Kacarevic
Gazette Writer

"I'll have a quart of milk, a loaf of bread, a stick of butter and... oh yeah, some marijuana, please."

Can you imagine walking into your neighbourhood store and making such a request without having the sales clerk even bat an eyelash? If marijuana is legalized, it won't be quite that easy, but at least you won't get thrown in jail for its possession.

Marijuana, pot, weed, ganja, reefer, grass, dope or whatever you want to call it, has become an extremely hot topic of conversation. The legalization of marijuana would put a smile on a great many faces. However, those who say they benefit from the drug, medicinally, would feel the greatest triumph.

"Personally, I can do things when I use [marijuana] that I couldn't otherwise," says Lynn Harichy, who uses marijuana for medicinal purposes and is the owner of London's Cannabis Compassion Center. "If I didn't use it I would end up in an asylum or a home. I need it to be legalized so I can live without the fear of losing my house and my children because I use the stuff."

Many patients with terminal illnesses such as AIDS, cancer and glaucoma use marijuana to relieve nausea and vomiting, Harichy says. She also adds marijuana, medicinally, is beneficial for anyone who is prescribed large amounts of pills.

"As of right now, I have doctors calling me all the time, asking for the stuff. They can't get it from anywhere else and they know it will relieve their patients of unnecessary pain and discomfort," Harichy says.

Sean Rose, an employee of The Toronto Hemp Company, concurs with Harichy's views of legalization. Rose says the criminal aspect of marijuana is the root of the problem and legalizing marijuana will reduce the problems with which it is associated.

"Legalization [of marijuana] is more a necessity than a benefit from the medical side of things," Rose says. "The benefits of legalizing marijuana, from a personal standpoint are, well, I love to smoke the stuff!"

Rose also notes the benefits resultant of hemp legalization. "You can get a permit, now, to purchase hemp. It's a benefit because of all the things that can be made from it," he says.

From an ecological perspective, Rose says by the time a regular tree is a foot tall, a hemp plant is full grown and ready for use. Also, he adds that a great deal less hemp than trees are required to make products.

Robert Metz, president of the Freedom Party of Ontario, also supports the legalization of marijuana, but says the only drawback associated legalization is the fear it instills in many people. Metz says that the only way to reduce this "fear factor" is by educating people about the misconceptions surrounding the legalization and use of marijuana. What these people are forgetting, he says, is drug use has been around for thousands of years.

"The biggest supporters of prohibition of drugs are the pushers and governments. For them, keeping drugs illegal is a good thing because of its monetary value. The U.S. government has been caught with its pants down many times over drugs," says Metz.

Metz also adds the government does not want marijuana legalized because of the arbitrary power it bestows on police for search and seizure purposes. He says the police use marijuana as a way of gaining entry to the premises of those suspected of other, more serious offences.

Furthermore, Metz says the government would like to keep marijuana illegal for purely selfish reasons and they have no concern for the medical benefits which could result from legalization. "Marijuana legalization may cause a decrease in the use of other drugs, such as alcohol, which poses a problem for the government because they have a lot of vested interest in alcohol," he says.

In response to whether marijuana legalization will lead to the legalization of other drugs, Metz is positive. "Yes, I hope so, but you can't forget that each drug has its own battle to fight. The benefits of marijuana are different from other drugs, so you can't use it to back up other drugs."

Rose concurs on this point. "The legalization of marijuana may serve as a precedent for issues of compassion, but not for anything else," Rose says. "That [question] leads to the whole idea of a 'gateway' drug [a drug that leads to the use of stronger drugs], which is untrue. Yeah, [marijuana] will be [a gateway drug] for people with really addictive personalities, but, I mean, so will a bowl of cereal for some people."

Metz says he feels there are a number of common misconceptions concerning marijuana legalization and use. "People think that legalization will increase, in users, the characteristics found in alcohol abusers. That's not true. Marijuana is a docile, friendly and passive drug whereas alcohol is an aggressive drug.

"Marijuana doesn't take away your sensibility like alcohol does. Of all the drugs we decided to legalize, alcohol was the worst choice. It has a much worse mind-altering effect than marijuana. It's funny, you'd almost want pot to be stronger. In the case of alcohol, they're trying to make it weaker with their 'light' beers," adds Metz.

Harichy says the misconceptions about marijuana are quite strong. "Between medical and recreational use, it is not a 'bad' drug. People think that marijuana kills, but it doesn't. In order to [overdose] you'd need to smoke 5,000 pounds of it – and who can do that?"

Marinol and cesamet, two drugs which contain THC (tetra-hydro-cannabinoid), the active ingredient in marijuana, have already been legalized. Harichy says pharmaceutical companies want marijuana to also be legalized as long as they can make it synthetically. "They won't make any money off of [marijuana] if it's not [made synthetically]," she says.

"[Pharmaceutical companies] have been working on different ways of making marijuana in a suppository, but that doesn't make any sense. The fastest way to make it get into your blood stream and feel the effects, is to smoke it," Harichy says. "God is the manufacturer of it and they can't patent it."

Does legalization of marijuana warrant the amount of attention it has been given? "Anything they're working on is very important, but nothing is as important as this, except for maybe keeping more hospitals open. It can make a person's last minutes in life more bearable," Rose says.

"Drug laws are the problem, not the drugs," Metz says. He adds he feels drug legalization demands priority because a great deal of money is spent annually on keeping those guilty of marijuana possession in jail. In his opinion, the absurdity lies in the fact violence is not a factor in a very high percentage of these crimes.

Bonnie Fox-McIntyre, spokesperson for Health Canada, says Health Canada is still waiting for evidence supporting beneficial claims of marijuana use, without which legalization cannot occur.

"Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, marijuana is under the same category as heroin, opium, codeine and tranquilizers," Fox-McIntyre contends. "Currently, there are many controlled substances available for medical purposes. However, in order to obtain approval, the drug needs to have a sponsor. The sponsor has to provide evidence of [the drug's] effectiveness for medical purposes. To date, we have not received any pertinent evidence concerning marijuana use.

"People claiming it does this and does that for them isn't good enough. We need to know if it's effective, if it does what they say it does and what the safe levels are," she adds.

Fox-McIntyre does, however, say that Health Canada is following a two-year study being done at the University of California, on the short-term effects of cannabinoids in HIV patients. If the results are positive, they can be used as support for the effort to legalize marijuana. However, the study must be replicated in Canada for it to be submitted as evidence.

Concerning marinol and cesamet, Fox-McIntyre says sponsors had evidence to back up the claim these drugs reduce nausea and vomiting, so they were approved. "Under the regulatory framework of Canada, Health Canada has to substantiate the claim. We would love to look at some substantial evidence. 'I tried it and it works for me,' just isn't good enough."


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Copyright The Gazette 1998