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Marijuana: an activists' mandate
By Lisa Peddle
As 1999 nears an end, the fight for the legalization of marijuana remains a hotly debated issue.
Different forums for the expression of ideas about marijuana and the law have been crucial to any progression of change. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has been one such forum.
NORML, an interest group which has been fighting for the legalization of marijuana since 1970, is a non-profit organization which one day hopes to abolish all criminal charges related to the personal use of marijuana, said Umberto Iorfida, president of the NORML headquarters in King City, Ontario.
Iorfida explained NORML is maintained through membership fees and donations. The organization expresses its philosophy through rallies, public interest gatherings at Toronto's City Hall as well as a web site, he said.
Although the organization does not promote or encourage the use of marijuana, Iorfida said it believes the present policy of criminal sanctions are unfair and discussed the repercussions for individuals and society in general, of the laws which prohibit the personal use of marijuana.
Individuals charged for marijuana use are left with a criminal record, which makes it difficult for them to gain employment or to travel abroad, he said, adding criminal charges produce damage towards individuals for the wrong reasons. "Marijuana is a drug," he said, and explained issues pertaining to it should be taken up by the medical profession, not the law.
"Why fight a war that cannot be won?" Iorfida said of the widespread use of marijuana throughout Canadian society. "A criminal record is not going to fix [the prevalent use] because marijuana will always be around. Instead, medical experts should take charge of the arena of marijuana usage. Money spent on charges against marijuana use should be put towards things like schools, hospitals and women's shelters," he said.
He added while there has been incredible progress in the past three to four years, the organization is still fighting for total legalization. "There should be a safe and economical access to obtain marijuana," Iorfida said, adding permits for the distribution of marijuana by licensed personnel in an adult environment would keep drugs off the streets and out of the hands of children.
Another forum chosen by some marijuana activists is the retail arena. Robin Ellins, media relations officer for The Friendly Stranger, a Toronto-based store which doubles as an activist organization, fighting for the decriminialization of cannabis, said the organization would like changes made to the legislation relating to both hemp and marijuana.
Ellins explained it was approximately five years ago when The Friendly Stranger started the non-profit environmental organization. She added the retail shop is used as an avenue to get their message about legalization to the public.
The route of forwarding signatures to the government became less appealing and The Friendly Stranger decided directly petitioning the government was not the best vehicle to get their message out, Ellins said. She added the fact the organization exists is a powerful asset in itself. "The buyers of hemp clothing and accessories vote with their dollars."
She added the organization is a powerful representation of what can be done to canvas their mandate. Ellins discussed the fact that the store functions within the legal system and said this method fits neatly into the political arena.
The popularity of their products, such as cosmetics, shampoo, hemp journals, notebooks, pipes and literary information, serve as a catalyst for the education of the population, Ellins said, adding the store is a resource which opens the door for people to network information.
Both NORML and The Friendly Stranger noted a positive growth in the response society has towards their message of the legalization of marijuana. One reflection of this is Canadian Minister of Health Alan Rock's proposed legislation on the medicinal use of marijuana, Iorfida said.
Although both advocates feel the existence of different forums putting forth ideas of change seem to allow for a possible impact on government leglislation, Derek Kent, spokesperson for Rock, said no one factor can take credit for the government's progress.
"Obviously Minister Rock had been approached by individual members of parliament who thought the government should proceed down this road," Kent said. "The government made its decision based on a variety of factors."
Andrea Donaldson, a third-year student in health sciences at Western, said hypothetically, she would want her voice and her organization to have the benefit of being heard. However, she said in reality this would be difficult.
"I feel that the benefits of marijuana rehab treatment clinics are positive, however to legalize marijuana could have obvious negative effects as well," she added.
Riley Hinson, a Western psychology professor explained there has been research done regarding physical dependency on marijuana and cited risks involved in its consumption such as impaired driving and smoke inhalation.
In regards to legalization or decriminalization of the drug, however, Hinson said society should make judgements based on scientific evidence, not preconceived perceptions. "These types of decisions should be based on objective, scientific fact."
Kumaran Perinpanatan, a first-year engineering student at Western said the consequences of marijuana legalization would be far reaching and would have negative effects on both society and individual health.
"I do not agree with the legalization of marijuana at all," Perinpanatan said. "It's not only bad for you, but others around you."