Pubdate: Tue, 16 Jul 2002
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2002, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Brian Laghi


Ottawa -- Ottawa will consider loosening up Canada's marijuana laws, 
possibly by decriminalizing simple possession of the drug.

Justice Minister Martin Cauchon made the suggestion Monday while 
questioning the efficacy of current pot laws and whether they are applied 
equally across the country.

He added, however, that the federal government would continue to make 
possession illegal, although it might be preferable to replace jail 
sentences and criminal records with fines.

"We're not talking about making it legal, we're talking about the 
possibility of moving ahead with what we call decriminalization," Mr. 
Cauchon said Monday. "The question we have to ask is if the system we have 
in place is efficient. We want to make sure it will still be illegal. But 
do we have to keep it criminal?"

He added that he will wait for two separate reports from parliamentary 
committees on the issue of drugs before moving forward. One of the 
committees, a senate committee, has already issued a preliminary report 
that says there is no scientific evidence that cannabis leads users to 
harder narcotics.

Last week, Britain decided to relax its possession laws. Starting next 
summer, police there will no longer have the automatic power to arrest a 
person found with small quantities of marijuana. They will have the right 
to confiscate the drug, but can only arrest someone when their use 
threatens public order or children. Traffickers would still be liable for 
sentences of up to 14 years.

Monday, Mr. Cauchon referred to the British decision.

"There are some countries that have decided to move ahead because if you 
look at the system that we have in place, keeping it criminal, it's not 
very efficient," he said. "Maybe we can find a way to keep it illegal and 
be more constructive, more effective, more efficient as well."

Because possession is still considered criminal, very often jurisdictions 
do not apply the law, he said. He added that it was a bit too early to 
begin gauging cabinet support for the idea.

Canadian Alliance MP Randy White said Mr. Cauchon acted irresponsibly by 
making his remarks before the release of the parliamentary reports.

"This is a substantial comment that he's made," said Mr. White, who sits on 
a House of Commons committee examining the issue.

"If that's how they run the country, by jumping into things without even 
knowing what they're talking about, then heaven help us."

Mr. Cauchon said the government might also look at programs to help people 
who "are using such a substance."

The government will launch a consultation with Canadians before moving forward.

Just a year ago, Prime Minister Jean Chretien ruled out decriminalization. 
However, the Senate report issued two months ago found that most 
recreational users smoke marijuana irregularly, with 10 per cent becoming 
chronic users.

Alan Young, a civil rights lawyer and champion of decriminalization, said 
Monday that it is unclear what Mr. Cauchon is proposing. Most of those 
convicted of possession do not go to jail currently, and what the 
government needs to do is ensure those caught with the drug do not receive 
a criminal record.

The real problem for most offenders is the employment difficulties and 
travel restrictions that a conviction imposes upon them, he said.

"I've heard these things too many times before," he said. "It's a small 
step forward but it doesn't really address the problem."

Any move to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana is likely to be 
unpopular with the United States because of its relatively open border with 
Canada, and could lead to trade difficulties.

Canada is already portrayed in the U.S. media as the source of a great deal 
of the pot -- particularly the potent B.C. bud -- available south of the 
border. When Ottawa began allowing marijuana to be used for medical 
reasons, U.S. newspapers reported it as a sign of a soft stand on drugs. 
Although the numbers are not supported, the United States media has 
suggested that as much as half of the pot grown in Canada goes south.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens