International policies on the use and possession of marijuana underwent some major reforms in 2002.

Canada and England are leading the way to decriminalization while the United States remains reluctant to accept medicinal uses of the currently illegal drug. Although the issue remains hotly contested, pro-marijuana organizations say they are steadily making ground.

Decriminalization, eh?

On Dec 9, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon announced Canada could do away with criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use as early as this spring. This statement came days before the release of a special House of Commons report recommending Parliament to decriminalize the use and cultivation of marijuana for personal use.

This announcement is consistent with a previous study by the Canadian Senate’s Special Committee on Illegal Drugs that recommended Parliament regulate the use and distribution of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes for people over 16 years old. Under decriminalization, persons found with small amounts of the drug would receive an administrative fine, but would not be subject to arrest or a criminal record.

Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said Cauchon’s statements are “an acknowledgement that criminal marijuana prohibition is more damaging to society than the responsible use of marijuana itself.”

Stroup said U.S. law enforcement spends $7.5 to $10 billion annually enforcing marijuana laws. According to the FBI, 720,000 Americans were arrested on marijuana charges in 2001.

Rethinking the Law

On July 9, England’s Home Secretary David Blunkett reaffirmed plans to reclassify marijuana so its possession is no longer a cause for arrest.

“The current classification of cannabis is disproportionate in relation to the harm it causes,” Blunkett said. “We must concentrate our efforts on the drugs that cause the most harm, while sending a credible message to young people. I will therefore ask Parliament to reclassify cannabis from Class B to Class C.”

Under British law, Class C is the least harmful category of illegal drugs, punishable by a maximum of two years in prison.

Stroup said the policy change is “an honest and common-sense approach that will refocus Britain’s drug policies on those substances that cause the greatest harm.”

Blunkett said he anticipates the new policy to be enacted by July 2003.

No Gateway in Sight

According to a study released Dec. 2 by RAND, a nonprofit institution dedicated to the improvement of policy and decision-making through research and analysis, marijuana use by adolescents does not lead to the use of harder drugs. This dismissed the “gateway theory” and raised doubts regarding the legitimacy of federal drug policies based on this premise.

Using data from the U.S. National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, researchers concluded that teenagers who tried hard drugs were predisposed to do so whether or not they tried marijuana.

Andrew Morral, associate director of RAND’s Public Safety and Justice unit, said the study raises serious questions about the legitimacy of basing national drug policy decisions on the false assumption that marijuana is a gateway drug.

“[The survey] suggests that policies aimed at reducing or eliminating marijuana availability are unlikely to make any dent in the hard drug problem,” Morral said.

NORML Foundation Executive Director Allen St. Pierre said most people who try marijuana never graduate to harder drugs.

“Statistically, for every 104 Americans who have tried marijuana, there is only one regular user of cocaine, and less than one user of heroin,” St. Pierre said. “For the overwhelming majority of marijuana smokers, pot is clearly a terminus rather than a gateway.”

Previous studies criticizing the gateway theory include a 2002 Canadian Senate report and a 1999 report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine. The latter study concluded that the “most consistent predictors of serious drug abuse appear to be intensity of marijuana use and co-occurring psychiatric disorders or a family history of psychopathology, including alcoholism.”

Not Just Blowing Smoke

In May, GW Pharmaceuticals Executive Chairman Geoffrey Guy announced that nonsmoked, cannabis-based medicines could receive British regulatory approval in 2003. The London-based company is currently testing the efficiency of marijuana extracts for analgesia and symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

In Phase 2 trials, nearly 80 percent of patients sustained “clinically significant therapeutic benefit” from the cannabis-based sublingual spray. Benefits include relief from pain, bladder-related symptoms, tremors and a 50 percent reduction in the use of opiates.

If the British government licenses the drug, other European nations and Canada are expected to do the same.

A Trip to the Doctor’s Office Takes On a New Meaning

On Oct. 29, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the federal government may not sanction doctors who recommend marijuana therapy to their patients. Possession and use of medicinal marijuana is legal in eight states if a physician recommends it.

Chief Judge Mary Schroeder said the federal government’s threats to sanction doctors who advised their patients to use medical marijuana “struck at core First Amendment issues of doctors and patients.”

“A doctor’s recommendation does not itself constitute illegal conduct and therefore does not interfere with the federal government’s ability to enforce its laws,” Schroeder said.

Judge Alex Kozinski said locally grown medical marijuana “does not have any direct or obvious effect on interstate commerce; therefore, federal efforts to prohibit it exceed Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.”

A coalition of California physicians and patients initially challenged the federal policy in 1997 after officials threatened to sanction any doctors who complied with California’s Prop 215, the Medical Use of Marijuana Act.