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I know a guy who does a lot of weed. It's not a happy story. He started smoking dope in high school. After university, his friends began working hard and building their careers. He smoked dope instead. His friends got married and had kids. So did he. But he couldn't ever keep a job for long. He had lengthy spells of unemployment. His family was always broke, because he inhaled every cent they had. Eventually his fed-up wife threw him out. Today, well into middle age, he's scraping by somewhere, living in some basement.

So don't tell me marijuana is harmless. Don't tell me marijuana doesn't destroy people and their families. It does.

This week Tony Clement, the Health Minister, promised to launch a new public-health campaign against drugs. It's about time. We've raised a generation of kids who think marijuana is invariably benign. That's by way of contrast to cigarettes, which, of course, can kill you. Many of them grew up lecturing their own parents about the demon nicotine and snatching illicit smokes from their trembling hands. As for marijuana, though ... hey! It's practically legal now. Isn't it?

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Um, no. But it's no wonder the kids are confused. The adults can't decide whether pot should be barely illegal, decriminalized, legalized or what. According to many progressive, liberal-minded adults, there's nothing really wrong with pot and the authorities should, like, chill out. Kids hear this message not just from the reefer lobby, but from leading lawyers, academics and newspaper editorial boards. You can scarcely blame them for believing that marijuana is less harmful than obesity, trans fats or lawn spray. As for booze - it's certainly less harmful than booze. Isn't it?

Well, maybe not. Today's pot is to the stuff I used to inhale as whisky is to beer. Recent research indicates that some people, because of their genetic makeup, react badly to the chemicals in cannabis, and are at heightened risk of psychosis. More commonly, the effects of regular indulgence include apathy, self-centredness and disengagement from life in general. A recent 10-year study found that regular cannabis users did far worse than drinkers in terms of mental health, occupational success and relationships, and were far more likely to be taking other drugs.

"Cannabis really does look like the drug of choice for life's future losers," said George Patton, the study's author. It's not too good for your lungs either. A couple of joints inflict about the same damage as a pack of cigarettes. In Britain, the government has begun a major policy reversal on marijuana after dozens of top experts in the field condemned it as a mental health risk. Even the permissive Dutch are doing a re-think.

Thanks to our permissive attitudes, marijuana use in Canada has doubled since 1994. Meantime, smoking rates have hit record lows. So don't tell me public-health campaigns won't work. Obviously they can, and do. Young people are notoriously resistant to public-health messages. Still, if we can teach them to recycle, there ought to be a place for teaching them how to live healthy, drug-free lives.

Wars on drugs have a bad name these days. No doubt the reefer lobby will be warning that the Conservatives' Bush-inspired war on drugs will revive the bad old days, when we made criminals of innocent 16-year-olds for having a couple of Js. So far, however, nobody is advocating this. The cops should stick to busting grow-ops and traffickers and street gangs. And the health minister should be leaning on the medical and public-health and education establishment to get the message out. It won't be easy. Most of the public-health officials currently involved with drug issues don't seem interested in the "prevention" part of drug campaigns. They're far too busy lobbying for more injection-drug sites, more needle exchanges and more free crack-cocaine kits to hand out to addicts.

Influencing public behaviour is no mystery. You start by changing public attitudes. You try to get everyone - government, the media and schools - to give the same message: No. And if that message is too righteous for you, please recall that cannabis is the lifeblood of your friendly street or biker gang. You know, the ones with guns. Have a nice day.

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About the Author

Margaret Wente is one of Canada's leading columnists. As a writer for The Globe and Mail, she provokes heated debate with her views on health care, education, and social issues. She is a winner of the National Newspaper Award for column-writing.Ms. Wente has had a diverse career in Canadian journalism as both a writer and an editor. More


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