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Canada behind Europe when it comes to reforming drug laws
by Alejandro Bustos

Despite Ottawa's recent decision to allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, Canada is still well behind several European countries when it comes to reforming its drug laws.

The Canadian law, which came into effect July 30, allows severely ill patients with a doctor's approval to apply to Health Canada to grow and use marijuana.

Compared to the United States, which has taken a hard line in its war against drugs, the move by the federal government looks almost radical.

But compared to Portugal, which has decriminalized the use of previously banned drugs from cannabis to crack cocaine Canada's move doesn't seem so revolutionary.

"America has spent billions on enforcement but it has got nowhere," Vitalino Canas, Portugal's top official for drug policy, was quoted as saying last month by the Guardian newspaper in Britain. "We view drug users as people who need help and care."

The new Portuguese law, which came into effect July 1, does not mean drugs are legal. However, drug users in Portugal no longer have to fear prison if they get caught.

In Switzerland, officials announced in March that they would take steps to remove penalties for all consumption of hashish and marijuana.

The move came after a Swiss government survey in February found that as many as one in four people in the country of seven million have tried pot.

Advocates of drug reform were quick to praise the Swiss.

"Switzerland is at the forefront," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the U.S.-based Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation. "First with their heroin trials ... and second with setting up marijuana regulation."

The Swiss have long given heroin to addicts for health reasons, such as reducing the risk of using shared needles and HIV infection.

With its experimentation with medical use of cannabis, Canada is moving closer to the Swiss approach, said Nadelmann.

"The bottom line is that Canada is pulling away from the U.S. and moving towards the European model," he said in a phone interview.

Not everyone in Europe is getting on the drug reform bandwagon. In Sweden, for instance, consumption or possession of cannabis is punishable by up to six months in jail.

But for the most part, Sweden is the exception rather than the rule in European attitudes toward drugs. And that is why drug reform advocates in Canada are looking across the Atlantic with keen interest.

"We are not as repressive as Sweden," said Eugene Oscapella, a lawyer and founding member of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy.

"But we are far behind countries like Portugal, Spain, Italy and Belgium."

The Ottawa-based foundation, which advocates reforming Canada's drug laws, points out that Canada was not the first country to introduce regulations for the medical use of marijuana.

"Belgium beat us to the punch," Oscapella said in a phone interview.

On July 19, the Belgian government announced it had approved the use of cannabis for medical purposes on a trial basis.

Under the new law, cannabis can only be administered in Belgian hospitals as part of research that has been approved by an ethics committee.

The announcement followed the Belgian government's pledge in January that it would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

European leaders are not the only ones calling for drug legislation reform.

Last year, Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle Ibanez raised eyebrows when he became the first head of state in the Americas to call for drug legalization.

In March, Mexican President Vicente Fox also made headlines when he suggested that drugs could eventually be legalized.

"Humanity some day will see that (legalization) is best," Fox told Mexican newspapers.


Alejandro Bustos





Supporting Documents

Aug. 1 National Review article on Canada's drug laws: +++

July 31 Montreal Gazette story on Canada's medicinal marijuana law: +++

July 25 story from the British paper the Independent: +++

July 20 Guardian article on Portugal's drug reforms: +++

July 13 Star-Ledger article on drug reforms: +++

May 7 El Pais article (translated) on drug reforms in Europe: +++




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