Montreal, September 15, 2010 • No 281


Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.



Drug War Balance Sheet


by Bradley Doucet


          It has been an eventful summer in the ongoing struggle to put the misbegotten War on Drugs out of its misery. Since my last article on the topic just three months ago, there is news to report on several fronts: Marc Emery’s legal woes, medical marijuana’s great potential, California’s bold gambit, and Mexico’s flagging resolve. Though there is bad news as well as good, it is easy enough to see why The Atlantic recently included “Reefer Sanity” among its 14 3/4 Biggest Ideas of the Year, with writer Joshua Green noting that “the movement to legalize marijuana is quietly picking up steam.”


Marc Emery Sentenced

          First, some bad news, though. On Friday, September 10, Marc Emery was sentenced in a Seattle courtroom to five years in jail for being a pain in the butt. Of course, officially he was sentenced for selling marijuana seeds over the Internet, some of which were shipped to the United States. He operated openly, and the Canadian government refused to throw him in jail, so American drug warriors came and got him themselves. Emery expressed regret to the court for his actions, saying he had “acted arrogantly,” although the Vancouver Sun’s Ian Mulgrew compared his sincerity to Galileo’s “confession.” The analogy seems apt, as the U.S. government’s position on drugs makes about as much sense as the medieval Church’s position on the motion of celestial bodies. At any rate, Emery’s lawyer Richard Troberman was less apologetic, saying, “The attorney-general’s true motive—which was to silence Mr. Emery’s political activity—could not be more clear.”

          Protest rallies are being held this Saturday, September 18 in over 80 cities around the world. The purpose of the rallies is to get Canadian Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews to repatriate Marc Emery to Canada to serve out his sentence here, and ultimately to free Marc Emery entirely for his non-violent, victimless political crime. If you think arrogance is no crime and Emery is in jail for having the courage of his convictions, you can visit Cannabis Culture’s website for exact times and locations of rallies in your city.

          As bad as Emery’s imprisonment is, there is a strange twist to his story that is encouraging, if also infuriating. Just one week before Emery was sentenced, the former U.S. attorney who indicted him, John McKay, publicly denounced his country’s marijuana policy as “wrongheaded” and “dangerous.” In a guest column in The Seattle Times, McKay opined that the criminal prohibition of pot has “utterly failed.” He called for giving “serious consideration to heavy regulation and taxation of the marijuana industry” and essentially treating pot like alcohol. No word on whether he plans to attend the Seattle rally on Saturday to repatriate and free the man he indicted using his country’s wrongheaded, dangerous, failed policies.

More Evidence for Medical Marijuana

          Despite his change of heart on pot prohibition, John McKay seems to doubt whether marijuana really has any significant medical benefits. A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal just days before his guest column finds otherwise. Dr. Mark Ware and his McGill University colleagues found, in a placebo-controlled test, that smoking even small amounts of marijuana could relieve pain, help patients sleep, and ease anxiety.

          With only 21 patients and only three different regimens of marijuana tested alongside the placebo, the results, while encouraging, could use further study. But the researchers had to overcome significant regulatory hurdles in order to conduct their limited experiments in the first place, given the illicit nature of the product they were testing. We would know much more already if the heavy hand of government had not been impeding progress for decades now.

          For my part, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing a registered medical marijuana user earlier this summer. Eleanor Podmore is a 56-year-old mother of two living in a nice, professional neighbourhood in a suburb of Toronto. Five years ago, Eleanor came down with a severe case of sciatica, a painful and debilitating medical condition. You can read about how marijuana has helped her get her life back here.

"It is hard to observe recent events and not be at least guardedly optimistic. Given a little push, perhaps someday sooner than we think, marijuana will be respected for its healing aspects and tolerated for its pleasurable ones."

California Set to Take the Next Step

          Voters in California have been at the forefront of more sensible drug policy since passing Proposition 215 in 1996, which made medical marijuana legal in the Golden State—though the over-reaching federal government begs to differ. This coming November 2, Californians will have the chance to lead the way once again as they vote on whether to legalize marijuana for non-medical use (i.e., for fun). Proposition 19 would allow adults to possess small amounts of marijuana (up to one ounce) for personal use and let them grow small marijuana gardens (up to 25 square feet) on their private property.

          It would also authorize cities and counties to decide whether to allow the sale of marijuana within their boundaries, and whether or not to tax those sales. The ongoing economic downturn has made legalizing and taxing the soft drug more appealing, as governments at all levels become increasingly desperate just to stay afloat. But Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of mostly retired police officers, judges, and prosecutors, is also supporting the ballot initiative on the grounds that it would “unclog court dockets and allow police to focus on more serious crime.”

          Opposing the measure are Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck, and President Obama’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske. In addition, all nine former directors of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have written a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, “urging him to use the federal ‘supremacy clause’ to pre-empt such lawmaking by state and local jurisdictions,” just as the Justice Department did recently in persuading a court to strike down Arizona’s immigration law.

Mexico Reconsiders

          Watching closely to see how the battle in California plays out will be millions of people living south of the U.S. border. In Mexico, drug prohibition really does look like a war, with the body count having reached 28,000 in the four years since President Felipe Calderon literally called in the army. With the Mexican President unrepentant and the American President’s own youthful indiscretions seemingly forgotten, respite for weary Mexicans caught in the crossfire seemed a distant possibility.

          But then surprisingly, in early August, Calderon was heard calling for a debate on legalization. He quickly backpedalled, but not quickly enough. Four days later, Vicente Fox, Calderon’s predecessor, issued a strong and clear statement calling for complete legalization of all drugs, rightly recognizing that this would deprive criminal gangs of much of their revenue and power.

          Stirrings of pot legalization in America’s most populous state have also helped make change seem more feasible. Should California legalize marijuana in November, four of six likely contenders for the Mexican presidency in 2012 have said Mexico should follow suit. As former foreign minister Jorge Castaneda put it recently, how could the drug war continue to be fought in Tijuana when those same drugs are freely available to adults a few miles away in San Diego?

          There are no guarantees, of course. Prop 19 could fail, or Attorney General Holder could invoke the “supremacy clause,” or President Obama could order his drug czar to descend on California. But it is hard to observe recent events and not be at least guardedly optimistic. Given a little push, perhaps someday sooner than we think, marijuana will be respected for its healing aspects and tolerated for its pleasurable ones. With a little help, Marc Emery could be back in Canada and back on the streets where he belongs before we know it. Reefer sanity, once just a pipe dream, doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea anymore.