Pubdate: Tue, 01 Oct 2002
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2002, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Campbell Clark


Ottawa -- The federal government signalled in yesterday's Throne Speech 
that it will move toward decriminalizing marijuana, but left enough wiggle 
room to elude controversy.

A declaration that the government will possibly decriminalize marijuana was 
the strongest indicator yet of the government's desire to move toward 
decriminalization, adopting leanings already expressed by Justice Minister 
Martin Cauchon.

While the pledge was guarded, the mention in the speech was intended to 
create momentum for the liberalization of marijuana laws.

"The government . . . will act on the results of parliamentary 
consultations with Canadians on options for change in our drug laws, 
including the possibility of the decriminalization of marijuana 
possession," the speech stated.

However, after the speech Mr. Cauchon made no promises of action. He said 
only that he intends to update the government's national drug strategy, and 
that reconsidering marijuana laws will be part of that. "We'll see. It's 
going to be part of an overall position from the government."

The choice of language in the speech was unusually tepid  Throne Speeches 
tend to be broad and vague, but rarely promise "possibilities" on specific 
questions. But in official Ottawa, the inclusion of any mention of a policy 
shift in a Throne Speech raises its priority within the bureaucracy and 
sets wheels moving.

A senior government official said the mention was clearly a signal that the 
Liberals want to decriminalize marijuana  but they have decided to test 
the water further in the face of opposition.

A go-ahead signal on decriminalization would be certain to renew opposition 
from groups such as the Canadian Police Association  and from the U.S. 
government, which still supports a broad zero-tolerance policy.

John Walters, the Bush administration's drug czar, criticized a Canadian 
Senate committee report that favoured full legalization of marijuana, and 
Canadian government officials acknowledged privately that the prospect of 
decriminalization here will rile the U.S. government.

The official said it was Mr. Cauchon who pushed for the inclusion of the 
idea in the Throne Speech, because he wants to see decriminalization through.

Mr. Cauchon has already said he favours decriminalization, which would see 
jail terms, stiff fines and criminal records for marijuana possession 
replaced by the equivalent of a traffic ticket. But he has said Canadians 
are not ready for full legalization, which would allow the open sale of pot.

The Justice Minister's push for decriminalization may have gained impetus 
when a Senate committee report came out.

"It's Goldilocks policy making," said Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett, who 
favours legalization. "Some things are too hot, some things are too cold, 
and this is just right."

While Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper said the Commons can debate 
the issue and Alliance MPs will take "different views" on it, some more 
socially conservative Liberal MPs in the Liberal caucus were upset.

Dan McTeague, MP for Pickering-Ajax-Uxbridge, argued that modern marijuana 
is highly toxic and possessing it should remain a crime: "I don't think 
that the Canadian public has come to one mind on the decriminalization of 
marijuana," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens