Pubdate: Wed, 28 May 2003
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Section: A1
Copyright: 2003, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: John Ibbitson
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Canada)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Walters, John)


The pot legislation introduced yesterday has little chance of ever being
passed into law. There is too much opposition from within the Liberal Party,
and too little time before Jean Chretien must leave office.

And yet the Prime Minister appears determined to push ahead with this losing
cause. Why? The answer, it would appear, is sheer cussedness.

The latest estimate is that, even if the government imposes the hammer of
time allocation at every stage of debate, no fewer than 10 parliamentary
days would be required to pass Bill C-38, the pot-decriminalization bill.
That rules out passage before Parliament rises for the summer recess in the
third week of June.

Even if the bill does get second reading before the summer adjournment, it
must make its way through the justice committee, already jammed up with
same-sex, divorce and privacy legislation.

"We have an agenda that would sink a horse," observes John McKay, committee
vice-chairman and head of the Liberal Ontario caucus. He doubts the
committee will be able to look at C-38 before October, and believes several
weeks of hearings across Canada will be needed to give the panel a proper
sense of public opinion.

He is also skeptical about the merits of the bill, a skepticism he believes
several other Liberals on the committee share.

Given those obstacles, says Mr. McKay, "how this bill is ever going to see
the light of day, I don't really know."

Even if the committee is able to send the bill back to the House with
suggested revisions before Christmas, a final vote wouldn't be expected
until after Paul Martin has, in all likelihood, already been chosen to
replace Mr. Chretien. By then, the current Prime Minister's ability to bend
the House to his purpose will be non-existent. The situation, in other
words, is bleak.

It's a shame, for there are compelling arguments for decriminalizing
possession of small amounts of marijuana. Several provincial courts of
appeal have already vacated the criminal laws on pot possession. Committees
of both the House and Senate have investigated the issue and recommended
decriminalization. Various polls have shown that the Canadian public in
recent years has moved from a 50-50 split on decrim to something like 70-30
in favour (though that support is once again weakening). Most of Europe and
even parts of the United States have already moved to decriminalize simple

Justice Minister Martin Cauchon is a strong proponent of the bill, and there
have been few lieutenants more loyal during the dark days of last summer's
caucus mutiny. Advisers in the Prime Minister's Office are also solidly
behind it. Late last year, their arguments convinced the PM, who gave the
nod to go ahead.

But then came the push-back. Health Minister Anne McLellan was none too
happy that pot was being decriminalized when Health Canada didn't have the
funding for an aggressive antidrug campaign. Police forces and Mothers
Against Drunk Driving Canada said the legislation would give police too
little discretion in deciding whether to lay charges and would encourage
toking and driving.

Then low-level U.S. protests against the bill began to increase in volume.
Less than two weeks ago, White House drug czar John Walters warned that
Canada risked seeing its border clog up as badly as the U.S.-Mexican border,
if Parliament passed the law.

"We'll respond to the threat," he said on Fox cable news, adding: "What we
have to do is protect Americans and, right now, this is out of control."

All these irritants forced repeated postponement of the bill. The
politically astute response would have been simply to shelve it.

Mr. Chretien, however, is determined to push through his final agenda, and
decrim is part of that agenda.

But that determination is a dissipating asset. It was enough for Kyoto. It
was enough for the gun registry. It may still be enough for campaign finance
reform. It probably won't be enough for decrim.

There is one hope for the bill. MPs canvassing their ridings this summer
would need to hear emphatically that constituents support decriminalizing
marijuana, and want the bill passed without delay. And they would need to
hear it loudly enough to push the justice committee and the House to
expedite passage of the bill.

But that would require a concerted and co-ordinated effort from the pro-pot

And they're probably just too mellow.
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MAP posted-by: Doc-Hawk