Pubdate: Fri, 16 May 2003
Source: ABC News (US Web)
Copyright: 2003 ABC News
Author: Rogene Fisher
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Canada)


U.S. Keeping Close Eye on Canada Pot Proposal

May 16-- Resentful Canadian legislators who want to decriminalize carrying 
around a decent-sized stash of marijuana are accusing their prime minister 
of giving in to U.S. meddling aimed at nipping the domestic drug plan in 
the bud.

Canada delayed introducing a proposal to decriminalize marijuana possession 
after its justice minister met Tuesday in Washington with U.S. Attorney 
General John Ashcroft.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien is taking a pounding from opposition 
legislators angered that his administration floated the proposal with U.S. 
officials before discussing it with them. Reacting to Justice Minister 
Martin Cauchon's meeting with Ashcroft, New Democrat leader Jack Layton 
said, "There goes Canadian sovereignty up in smoke," The Associated Press 

The proposal would make possession of 15 grams or less of pot -- enough 
marijuana for approximately 20 joints -- a minor offense. Offenders would 
face fines on par with those for traffic tickets, rather than jail terms or 
criminal records.

Cauchon stresses that the proposal does not legalize marijuana. Instead, it 
is an attempt to shift penalties. The proposal would stiffen penalties for 
plant-growing operations and traffickers. He argues that the current 
penalty system has left thousands of Canadians needlessly tarred with 
criminal records and that cases on minor marijuana offenses are clogging 
the courts.

Seeking Permission?

Canadian opposition legislators were angered not only that the Chretien 
administration discussed the drug plan with Washington first, but also by 
the appearance that Canada was seeking U.S. permission to pursue a domestic 

Before his Washington visit, Cauchon had also discussed the plan with 
Ashcroft at a recent Group of Eight summit.

When the proposal was put forward in a policy speech late last year, U.S. 
officials were quick to voice their opposition. John Walters, director of 
the Office of National Drug Policy, warned that the decriminalization 
proposal would increase both Canada's drug problem and the flow of 
marijuana to the United States.

Both Walters and U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci have said a 
decriminalization program in Canada could lead to major slowdowns at border 
crossings as U.S. Customs and immigration officials would be more vigilant 
in searching for drug smugglers.

The original proposal would have decriminalized possession of 30 grams or 
less, and had been slated to be introduced in Parliament this week.Cauchon 
downplayed suggestions that the delay was prompted by U.S. pressure, and 
said he would introduce the proposal shortly after the legislature's recess 
next week.

Bullied by Bush?

According to Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the U.S.-based Drug 
Policy Alliance, some Canadian politicians were expressing concern about 
possible U.S. retaliation for the policy.

"I think they are feeling bullied and intimidated, especially with Cellucci 
and Walters being so strident and threatening," Nadelmann said.

Nadelmann, whose group supports making marijuana legally available for 
medical purposes and ending criminal penalties for marijuana, except those 
involving distribution of drugs to children, said no decriminalization 
program is perfect, but U.S. policy is failing. The enormous expenditures 
and continuing high incarceration rates suggest, Nadelmann said, that 
America needs a new approach to its "war on drugs."

Noting that many Americans support reducing or eliminating prison sentences 
for minor drug-possession offenses as well as the medical use of marijuana, 
Nadelmann said the Bush administration is pushing an extremist position 
with an "ideological fervor not unlike Carrie Nation and the temperance 

Canada's move toward decriminalizing pot, Nadelmann said, would highlight 
that extremism. "It's one thing for the Bush administration to have to deal 
with the fact that more and more of the industrialized world is moving 
toward legal regulation of marijuana, but to have our closest neighbor and 
ally talking and acting in favor of it further legitimizes it."

Nadelmann, who visited Vancouver earlier this month to discuss drug policy 
initiatives, said Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell told him that federal 
ministers were feeling concerned about pressure from U.S. officials 
regarding the marijuana proposal.

But Mike Murphy, a spokesman in Cauchon's office, said there was no 
pressure from U.S. officials to vet the plan before it was introduced in 
the Canadian legislature. "It was a meeting that was conducted in an 
atmosphere of mutual respect. It was a cordial meeting in which items of 
mutual interest were discussed," Murphy said.

The U.S. Justice Department had no further comment beyond a joint press 
release issued after the meeting, which said Ashcroft and Cauchon discussed 
the full range of U.S.-Canadian issues, including counterterrorism, 
counternarcotics, extradition and mutual legal assistance.

In spite of a growing list of disputes with Canada -- ranging from its 
opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq and an ongoing dispute among 
Canadian legislators over the U.S. National Defense Missile Program -- 
Murphy stressed that the drug policy initiative was not creating another 
snag in U.S.-Canada ties.

"The U.S. is a great friend and important ally," Murphy said. "There's been 
some misinformation out there. The proposal is not calling for the 
legalization of marijuana. Marijuana possession in small quantities will 
still be illegal. What we're talking about is an alternative penalty program."

Creating a New Problem?

Not all ministers were angered by the delay of the decriminalization 
proposal. Health Minister Anne McLellan expressed concern that passage of 
the proposal would lead to a spike in marijuana use. She cited statistics 
showing that usage rose in the 12 U.S. states immediately after marijuana 
was decriminalized. She noted, however, that usage in those state 
eventually returned to original levels.

She said she would not back the proposal until she had funding for a 
strategy to deal with increased usage or addiction.

Howard Simon, spokesman for the U.S.-based Partnership for a Drug-Free 
America, echoed McLellan's concern. Simon's group focuses on helping 
American kids and teens reject substance abuse. There are two particularly 
influential factors that affect decisions to try drugs, Simon said: the 
level of perceived risk and the level of perceived social approval. "If you 
lessen one it will affect the other," he said.

However, whether a country regulates a substance or not, Simon said, may 
make little difference in the end.

If parents talk with their kids regularly, openly and honestly, kids will 
be better equipped to choose not to use drugs, he said. And helping kids 
stay away from drug use will likely steer them away from drug use in 
adulthood. "In the final analysis it's about choice, whether it's a legal 
or illegal product."
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