Pubdate: Mon, 04 Aug 2003
Source: Ottawa Hill Times (CN ON)
Author: Libby Davies, NDP MP


Bill C-38, the so-called Decriminalization of Marijuana Bill, appears to 
take a more liberalized approach to cannabis. While cannabis possession 
will still be illegal, the bill would provide alternative penalties (fines) 
for possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana.

Between 15 and 30 grams will mean a fine, or up to six months imprisonment 
and/or a $1,000 fine. Penalties for all levels of production remain, 
including one-to-three plants at a $5,000 fine and/or 12 months in jail, 
and up to 14 years in jail (double the current maximum term of 
imprisonment) for 50 or more plants.

Bill C-38 presents a contradictory and confused approach. On the one hand, 
it purports to offer a measure of decriminalization, but the political 
rhetoric and system of penalties point to a tougher and wider enforcement 
stance. Ironically, lower fines could lead to more people being punished, 
not less.

Yet another contradiction in the bill is the "Catch-22" between cultivation 
- - which has not been decriminalized and personal possession of under 15 
grams. In essence, you'd get a fine for minor possession, but you'd get a 
criminal record and jail time if you grow your own or buy!

The bill is also silent on the question of amnesty for Canadians who 
currently have a criminal record for cannabis possession (about 600,000 

All in all, the bill perpetuates the myth that the criminal law can resolve 
problems relating to the use of drugs. If enforcement is the only "pillar" 
used in a drug strategy, little will be done to make sure that people make 
informed healthy decisions about their drug use.

The Renewed Drug Strategy, also announced by the federal government, is far 
short of its mark. The $245-million over five years for education, 
prevention and treatment is barely half of what was promised by the 
Liberals in the 2000 election.

The bill will create barely a ripple in tackling organized crime and in 
fact, some criticism has been leveled that the bill, through its regime of 
stiffer penalties for cultivation, may actually reinforce organized crime 
and force out the small grow operations.

By contrast, the Senate report of September 2002 recommended, "...a 
criminal exemption scheme. This legislation should stipulate the conditions 
for obtaining licenses as well as producing and selling cannabis; [and] 
criminal penalties for illegal trafficking and export..."

In effect, the Senate report called for domestic non-punitive regulatory 
approach, but Justice Minister Martin Cauchon has not accepted the Senate's 
direction. He has made it clear he believes higher rates of enforcement 
will discourage use. (News release, May 27, 2003). There is no evidence to 
suggest that higher enforcement does actually discourage use.

Nevertheless, this bill will constitute an important debate for Parliament, 
and will allow opportunities for amendments and review.

The real question may be, though, will this bill ever see the light of day 
or simply go up in smoke. Forced by the courts to bring forward legislation 
on this and same-sex marriage, Jean Chritien may have unwillingly found his 
legacy. His replacement in the wings may consider this too hot to handle, 
prior to the Liberal (un)leadership race and a looming federal election.

Federal New Democrats will keep pressing for the bill's debate, review and 
amendments that better reflect the reality of where Canadians are at when 
it comes to personal use of marijuana. It's unfair and unrealistic to 
criminalize hundreds of thousands of Canadians for possession of marijuana, 
nor is it right to leave it to the courts to untangle the mess created by 
the lack of action by the Liberals.

I only hope that Parliament can have a clear and open discussion about 
cannabis in the fall.

NDP MP Libby Davies is her party's House Leader and social policy critic, 
was a member of the Special Parliamentary Committee on the Non-Medical Use 
of Drugs, and represents the riding of Vancouver East, B.C.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens