HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Pot Not A Pressing Problem
Pubdate: Sun, 14 Nov 2004
Source: Winnipeg Free Press (CN MB)
Copyright: 2004 Winnipeg Free Press


THE American ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci, may have been
labouring the obvious last week when he pointed out that one of the
main differences between Canada and the United States is that
Canadians tend to be more liberal and Americans tend to be more
conservative, but it was still worth reminding people of that. This is
one reason, he suggested in a discussion with the National Post, that
same-sex marriage is a less controversial issue here than it is in the
U.S. and why people in this country overwhelmingly supported Senator
John Kerry in his unsuccessful bid to defeat President George W. Bush
in the Nov. 2 election.

It is also one of the reasons that Ottawa is moving much more quickly
than Washington -- which is actually not moving forward at all -- on
the issue of decriminalizing marijuana.

Mr. Cellucci has frequently discussed hard issues during his term as
ambassador, a position from which he will soon retire.

His tone has often been forceful without being scolding -- it is,
after all, his job to defend America's interests in Ottawa. A
recurring theme, and one that he reaffirmed last week, is that
traditional ties between the two nations are so strong and run so deep
that these differences, as difficult as they may sometimes be, are not
serious enough to threaten the relationship. Canada can refuse to help
the United States in Iraq, refuse to co-operate on other issues, but
the two societies have too much in common, the two governments share
too many responsibilities, the two economies are too tightly entwined,
for the relationship to be lastingly threatened.

That is not to say there may not be consequences -- every action has a
counter-reaction, every decision comes with a price.

One decision that Mr. Cellucci feared might have serious effects is
Prime Minister Paul Martin's tabling of legislation that would
decriminalize the personal use of marijuana.

Such a law, the ambassador warned, could worsen already severe
congestion problems at the border.

A perception on the part of U.S. customs and drug enforcement
officials that marijuana was easily available in Canada would result
in far more cars being stopped for searches than is even the case
today and would greatly hinder efforts to make border crossings from
Canada into the U.S. a faster and easier process.

For that reason alone, he argues, Ottawa should reconsider
decriminalizing the drug.

The legislation that is being proposed to the House of Commons is, in
fact, a rather mild piece of reform.

It would allow possession of small amounts of marijuana to be treated
as a misdemeanor, rather than as a criminal offence as it is today.

Since the courts in most parts of the country dispose of most cases of
simple possession, and even some more serious charges, with
conditional discharges, the law does not do much more than recognize
that reality and free up police and courts to deal with more serious

The law might, in fact, benefit American drug enforcement, because it
would also increase the penalties for marijuana growing operations,
curtailing, in theory at least, the flow of marijuana south across the

The American government is adamantly opposed to any easing of the
penalties in laws for the use or possession of marijuana and against
any relaxing of the enforcement of those laws. Following a court
decision several years ago, it was compelled to recognize the medical
benefits of the drug, but the most recent statistics indicate that it
has so far granted only eight exemptions for it.

Many American states, however, are closer in attitude to Canada when
it comes to relaxing marijuana laws. Ten states have laws that permit
the medical use of marijuana in defiance of the restrictions imposed
by federal law and that appears to be a trend that is growing.

In a referendum held with the Nov. 2 election, Montana, not usually
considered a liberal state, voted to legalize the medical use of marijuana.

Even so, American public opinion remains strongly divided, strongly
enough that a conservative administration such Mr. Bush's will feel no
urgent need to liberalize the laws. Even in more traditional liberal
states, ambivalence remains. Oregon defeated a proposal that would
have extended its medical-use program, while Alaska defeated a move to
decriminalize personal possession of pot -- although a full 43 per
cent of Alaskans voted in favour of it.

If Canada's new laws on marijuana are approved, possession of
marijuana will not be legal, growing and trafficking in it will still
be punishable by imprisonment. The position of Ottawa and some
American states will be hardly distinguishable. Mr. Cellucci's concern
is genuine, the problems he foresees are possible, perhaps probable.

They need not be inevitable. Canada and the United States have many
more important problems that they need to work out. If the differences
over marijuana can be put in perspective, there need be no increase in
problems at the border or diplomatic difficulties in the capitals.
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