On July 1, Connecticut will become the 14th American state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, without going so far as to legalize the drug. It is in no way fitting that the new rules take effect on Canada Day. Canada continues to treat possession of marijuana for personal use as a crime, and to waste government resources on doing something about it.
It may surprise Canadians that so many states have moved to decriminalize marijuana - handing out fines akin to speeding tickets. At the state level, it has now become possible for legislators of both parties in the United States to admit that the war on drugs has been a costly failure.
It is a bit too early to speak of an emerging consensus south of the border. But the voices being heard more often are those like Brenda Kupchick, a Republican member of the state legislature: "I've known a lot of people over my lifetime who've used marijuana, and who grew up to be productive citizens and never used drugs again. And I know people who took drugs out of their parents' medicine cabinet and became full-blown drug addicts and lost their lives."
In Connecticut, possession of less than a half-ounce (30 joints) would result in a $150 fine for a first offence, and between $200 and $500 on subsequent offences. Those 21 or under caught using marijuana will lose their driver's licences for 60 days. In Alaska, possession of up to one ounce of marijuana in a private home brings no penalty at all. A set of U.S. studies has found that, when cannabis was decriminalized, use did not rise any more than in states where possession remained a crime.
Canada's possession laws are an expensive irrelevancy. In 2009, there were 48,981 incidents of cannabis possession reported by police. While there is no up-to-date estimate on the annual costs of enforcement, a reputable 2002 study put them at $300-million. All this for a "relatively harmless" drug, as the Ontario Court of Appeal has called it. Canada has not even been able to get its act together to make marijuana truly available for medicinal use, according to an Ontario judge who has ordered Ottawa to fix the medical-marijuana law.
One might expect that some people in Connecticut will have quite a celebration on Canada Day.
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