Opinion » Maxed Out

Maxed Out

Have you heard? The war is over!

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By G.D. Maxwell

The Canadian Senate, that moribund public patronage trough for aging political bagpersons and defeated politicians, has sung its own song of freedom, its own redemption song - Don't Bogart that Joint My Friend, Pass it Over to Me.

Who'da thunk? The Senate, our Senate, obviously hiding balls the size of cantaloupes all these years, comes out puffing, calling for the legalization of cannabis. Not some namby-pamby, don't-ask-don't-tell, half-measure, turn a blind eye decriminalization, but outright, trot down to 7-11 for a pack of smokes legalization! Breathtaking.

In 1972, tired of protesting the Vietnam War, looking for something positive to tackle, a couple of friends and I, convinced our own redemption was near, formed a chapter of NORML - the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws - at the university we were attending. It was a naïve, stupid gesture. We not only had no hope in hell of reforming the laws, we became lightning rods for every redneck cracker carrying a badge and gun. We might as well have walked around with sandwich boards reading Bust Me Pig. Instead of reforming marijuana laws, we pretty much had to give up smoking the stuff because we were always being harassed.

Worst of all, we obviously didn't understand how good we had it. At the University of New Mexico, pot was practically de facto legal. You could puff with impunity on campus, get high at the student union theatre and score pretty much anything you want at Alice's Restaurant. The Good Humor ice cream hippie who pedalled a three-wheel goodies bike around campus sold, along with frozen confections, reasonably good Mexican pot in various quantities, hash, assorted psychedelic pharmaceuticals and, best of all, he took food stamps as payment and made change in cold, hard coin of the realm. Life was good.

Though not so good as I witnessed in Amsterdam half a decade later. On a side trip north during a three month journey that consisted almost exclusively of getting chased off various Alps by bad weather and developing a lifelong addiction to Italian food, I had only two burning desires - stare at original Van Gogh canvases up close and smoke myself silly. After better than two months of abstinence, the order of these desires may not have been as stated.

Peter, the bartender at the Hotel Arrivé, a seedy dive in an even seedier part of town where I'd been directed by some climbers I'd met trying to outrun lightning on Eiger, placed an ice cold Heineken and a ball of sticky black hash on the bar in front of me before I'd asked for either. Good bartenders are like that, you know. It was a year into the government's experiment with liberalized drug laws and Peter wasn't wasting time plumbing the limits of the new regime.

To further my touristic experience and quench my desires, he drew me a crude map, directing me to a canal some miles distant, and since barges tethered along Amsterdam's canals didn't have house numbers, told me to look for the "big mouth." "Ya can't miss it, mahn," he said in a mock Rastaman accent.

He was right. Tied to the eastern side of a canal in an otherwise prim neighbourhood was a barge with a false facade on its starboard side. It looked like an outsized pair of Rolling Stone logo lips but with teeth instead of a lasciviously protruding tongue. The entryway was the left-middle tooth.

When my eyes had adjusted to the gloom inside the cabin I descended six stairs and stood in front of what appeared to be a bank teller's cage. Inch thick bullet-proof glass separated me from the teller, your standard issue biker/bouncer/don't-mess-with-me tough guy. A hand printed "menu" scotch-taped to the glass listed the cannabis du jour, half a dozen choices all at market prices in a reasonably priced market.

I made my choice, slipped what I was sure was a sufficient amount of unfamiliar currency through the opening at the bottom of the glass and waited while the pot teller disappeared through a door behind his chair. Having watched too many sting movies, I expected a trap door to open and flush me into the canal. It didn't. The clerk reappeared, slid a plastic bag of pot and my change back under the protective glass and wished me a pleasant stay in Amsterdam. I was so dumbfounded I forgot to ask if he sold papers.

I don't expect to live long enough to ever replicate that experience in Canada. I don't imagine for a minute the recommendations of the Senate Committee will be adopted. The great thing about being a senator is you don't have to stand for re-election and it's going to take some very brave MPs to ever actually legalize pot.

And that's a real shame.

The senate report is a lot broader in its scope than just recommending pot be legalized. The reporting of it has been trivialized by the media who've latched onto that one recommendation and the other one about establishing a framework for production, distribution and sale. The whole report is 600 pages and the summary a brief 55. Judging from what I've seen to date, journalists have read maybe 10, reported on maybe two.

The report recommended, among other things:

 creation of a National Advisor on Psychoactive Substances and Dependency within the Privy Council Office;

 calling a high-level conference of key stakeholders from the provinces, territories, municipalities and associations in 2003, to set goals and priorities for action on psychoactive substances over a five-year period;

 mandate the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse to ensure national co-ordination of research and reporting on psychoactive substances;

 adoption by the Government of Canada of an integrated policy on the risks and harmful effects of the whole range of psychoactive substances including prescribed medication, alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs;

 amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to create a criminal exemption scheme stipulating the conditions for obtaining licences as well as for producing and selling cannabis; criminal penalties for illegal trafficking and export; and the preservation of criminal penalties for all activities falling outside the scope of the exemption scheme;

 declare an amnesty for any person convicted of possession of cannabis under current or past legislation;

 provide new rules regarding eligibility, production and distribution with respect to cannabis for therapeutic purposes;

 amend the Criminal Code to lower permitted alcohol levels to 40 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, in the presence of other drugs, especially, but not exclusively cannabis.

Key to the senators' report is the simple realization that the war on drugs is over - drugs won. Their framework for getting on with our lives deserves consideration.

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