02/16/2012 05:10 EST | Updated 04/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Marijuana Could Be the Government's Best Friend

Legalizing marijuana could ensure the scant resources that exist in the criminal justice system were not spent on the investigation and prosecution of Canadian citizens who use marijuana for pain. And let's not forget, we could take a nice chunk out of our deficit with the revenue that would come into the government coffers through taxing this drug.

When the Liberal Party of Canada voted at their biennial convention to legalize and regulate marijuana, some joked that the 77 per cent who backed the non-binding resolution must have inhaled.

As a criminal lawyer who defends average people who face charges simply for seeking relief from chronic pain or other illnesses from the drug, I say the Liberals are on the right track in adopting the ideology that marijuana should be legalized and taxed ­-- just like tobacco.

This is not a new concept; but it's encouraging to see this is still on a Liberal agenda. In fact, several years ago, the Liberals were planning on decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. It was heralded as a great move to eliminate all sorts of minor offences that clogged the courts at great cost to taxpayers. At the same time, it recognized that marijuana is not the same drug as cocaine, ecstasy, and many of the other illicit substances that are contained with the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Unfortunately, that all disappeared with the Conservative government and a more law-and-order agenda. Instead we have seen an increase in penalties that are applied to possession and production of marijuana, which is in the wrong direction.

The already scarce resources that exist in the criminal justice system ought not to be spent on the investigation and prosecution of Canadian citizens who use marijuana for pain relief, anti-nausea, or frankly, to just relax. The thousands of dollars that are wasted on these types of cases are real dollars going to waste when more money is needed for health care and education.

We need a dramatic shift in ideology to a new regime that would recognize that marijuana itself has true medical benefits and ought to be removed as an illegal drug under the CDSA and be regulated under federal legislation.

The reality is science has long recognized the legitimate medicinal benefits of the chemicals contained in marijuana. The drug provides not just analgesic assistance, but is also a successful treatment for nausea, inflammation, pain and may have broader benefits beyond those we have scientific evidence of. There are many Canadians using marijuana lawfully for medicinal purposes. But, because the current system is so incredibly ponderous, many average Canadians are turning to growing the plant for themselves in desperation for the same relief those who have the authorizations.

What has been of significant concern over the last year and a half to two years is many individuals who have been prescribed, or are trying to obtain prescriptions for marijuana for legitimate health issues, have had tremendous difficulty in gaining access to medical practitioners who sign the authorization applications and in many respects, in spite of very long waiting lists, are forced by Health Canada to see specialists.

In addition, the reality -- at least in Ontario -- is that the vast majority of health practioners are not supporting the program because of the government's influence. To further compound the problem for sick Canadians who need a safe, reliable supply of this medicine, are extensive delays by Health Canada in processing the applications.

Unfortunately, recent federal legislation [Bill C-10] that impacts prosecution and sentencing in relation to marijuana-related offences, sends the wrong message about marijuana and hence detracts from any legitimacy marijuana deserves as a legitimate medicine.

The more serious a marijuana production offence or possession offence is viewed by government, the more the drug itself is equated with drugs like cocaine, which is patently unfair. The effect is a small number of doctors are willing to prescribe marijuana and the sick individual must find alternative means of gaining access, like growing marijuana on their own at serious risk of being criminally charged.

Sadly, the ensuing prosecution drains them not only of the marijuana, but also the money, putting them at risk of losing their homes, cars, and other assets which are seized and/or restrained under such an investigation. Even if charges are withdrawn, the process itself has a very crushing effect on many individuals who are already quite vulnerable given their medical state.

Now we have Bill-C10 that can see someone growing more than six plants, if convicted, facing a mandatory minimum sentence of six months in jail.

The right direction is to finally recognize that marijuana has legitimate medical benefits and that overall use of marijuana has far less serious side effects and impact than those of alcohol. The effects of alcohol can be far more insidious and damaging to the community. We should recognize that marijuana is a much milder drug than many others, including those that are legitimately prescribed, and allow people to possess and use without fear of criminal sanctions. It's equally important to regulate marijuana under a different regime, where the production and sale can be managed and taxed.

All of illegal commercial grow operations that exist on the black market would have the profit removed and hence would no longer be the problem that it currently is. Once lawful growing and dispensing becomes regulated, the community will not be subjected to the same types of risks that exist now.

And again, let's not forget, we could take a nice chunk out of our deficit with the revenue that would come into the government coffers through taxing this drug.