Pubdate: Sun, 22 Sep 2002
Source: Halifax Herald (CN NS)
Copyright: 2002 The Halifax Herald Limited
Author: Canadian Press


Jean Chretien helped launch an initiative to radically reform
marijuana laws when he was justice minister in 1981, newly released
records show.

Cabinet documents from the government of then-Prime Minister Pierre
Trudeau show that Chretien pressed cabinet to lower fines, reduce jail
sentences and eliminate the criminal records of Canadians convicted of
possessing small amounts of marijuana.

Chretien also tabled a discussion paper at cabinet that, among other
things, raised the possibility of legalizing marijuana.

"Legalization and any regulation of cannabis production, distribution
and use would likely reduce some of the adverse consequences of using
the criminal law in this area," says the Jan. 23, 1981, paper.

"Because the conduct would be legal there would be no offences, no
criminal records, and no stigmatization. As well, there would be a
significant reduction of an illicit market, which obliges people to
engage in criminal activities or deal with criminal types in order to
supply themselves with cannabis."

Documents detailing the reform proposals, which were never put into
effect, were obtained under the Access to Information Act. The law
permits the disclosure of cabinet records only after 20 years have

Between January and July of 1981, Chretien joined Robert Kaplan and
Monique Begin - the solicitor general and health minister - in trying
to persuade cabinet colleagues to lighten the fines and prison terms
for simple possession of marijuana. The proposals would also curb
police powers and provide pardons to those convicted under the
previous, harsher law.

Full legalization, although briefly considered, was ultimately
rejected partly because "there is little doubt . . . that legalized
distribution would likely result in the increased use of cannabis by
Canadians thereby increasing the health and safety hazards which are
associated with it."

More than two decades later, the torch has passed to Prime Minister
Jean Chretien's own justice minister, who is considering the
decriminalization of marijuana.

Martin Cauchon said this summer that there is "strong support" among
Canadians for a new legal regime that would drop penalties against
people who possess and use small quantities of the drug.

Earlier this month, a Senate committee called on the government to
legalize and regulate the production and sale of marijuana, and to
erase the criminal records of those already convicted of simple possession.

Cauchon, who has admitted to smoking dope in his youth, has said the
government will not disclose its next move until early next year.
However, he has already indicated that legalization would create too
many international problems for the government, which has signed
treaties outlawing various drugs.

In July this year, Chretien said he had never tried

"I don't smoke cigarettes, and when I was young the word marijuana did
not exist," he said. "I didn't know. I learned about the word long
after that. It was too late to try it."

Nevertheless, a younger Chretien spearheaded the Trudeau government's
abortive efforts to relax marijuana laws following a Throne speech on
April 14, 1980, that promised significant reform.

As justice minister, he pressed for a maximum fine of $200, or maximum
imprisonment of 15 days, for simple possession of less than 30 grams
of marijuana. At the time, a first offence was punishable by a maximum
fine of $1,000 and-or six months in jail.

But like all government initiatives in the wake of the 1973 report of
the Le Dain Commission, which recommended the legalization of
marijuana, this one died before becoming law. The first major reform
of the law controlling marijuana did not come into effect until 1996
with passage of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

The 1981 cabinet records do not make clear why the Chretien proposals
went nowhere, though the minutes of meetings indicate several cabinet
ministers were opposed to reform.

"Some Ministers expressed reservations that the government should not
be seen to be liberalizing laws on Cannabis at this time," say the
minutes of a July 29, 1981, cabinet meeting. 
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