Pubdate: Tue, 27 May 2003
Source: New York Times (NY)
Section: Health
Copyright: 2003 The New York Times Company
Author: Clifford Krauss
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Canada)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Bush, George)
Bookmark: (Walters, John)


TORONTO -- The Canadian government introduced legislation today to 
decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana but set stricter 
penalties for those apprehended for trafficking the drug.

After more than a year of internal debate on how to change marijuana laws, 
the form the legislation took was a compromise between those in the cabinet 
who see the drug as a minor nuisance and those who fear that anything 
approaching legalization would increase use by young people.

The Bush administration has been vocal in cautioning Canada that Washington 
would be forced to increase time-consuming border searches if 
decriminalization of marijuana is enacted. American officials say 
decriminalization would increase supplies and trafficking.

Canadian officials argued today that the legislation would modernize law 
enforcement approaches to a drug whose use is often overlooked by the local 

"I want to be clear from the beginning, we are not legalizing marijuana and 
have no plans to do so," Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said. "What we are 
changing is the way we prosecute certain offenses of possessions. We are 
introducing alternative penalties."

Under the legislation, possession of up to 15 grams -- about 20 cigarettes 
- -- would be an offense punishable by a fine of up to $180 for youths and 
$290 for adults. But maximum sentences for illicit growers would increase, 
and the government would spend about $150 million on an educational 
campaign to convince young people not to use drugs. Fines for possession 
would increase for intoxicated drivers.

It appears probable but not certain that the legislation will be enacted by 
the House of Commons within the next few months. Prime Minister Jean 
Chretien has publicly come out strongly for decriminalization, and so have 
the three candidates running to succeed him for the leadership of the 
governing Liberal Party.

Several backbench Liberal lawmakers have spoken out against the 
legislation, however, complaining that the legislation does not set tough 
minimum sentences for growers and traffickers and sends the wrong signal to 

"We're removing the stigma attached to the product and sanctioning or 
tolerating its use as produced by major elements of organized crime 
throughout Canada," the Liberal member of Parliament from Ontario, Dan 
McTeague, complained in an interview. "It is by no means a done deal as far 
the Parliament is concerned. This bill is going to have a difficult time."

Mr. McTeague noted that United States Customs has reported a "staggering" 
increase in seizures of Canadian marijuana crossing the American border. He 
said United States Customs seizures of 814 pounds of marijuana in 1998 
increased to 2,650 pounds in 2001 and to 20,893 pounds last year.

The huge increase in 2002 is in part related to increased surveillance at 
the border in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Cultivating and trafficking marijuana are major businesses in Canada, run 
by biker gangs and Asian organized crime. Marijuana is estimated to be the 
third largest agricultural crop in both Ontario and British Columbia.

Pressure to reform the marijuana laws has been building for some time 
because of the drug's common use in several provinces, a string of lower 
court rulings and a constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court to 
legalize the drug. Recent polls show that most Canadians believe that 
youths caught possessing small amounts of marijuana should not be penalized 
with a lasting criminal record.
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