Canada poised to ease pot laws

On Monday, Prime Minister Chrétien signaled he may decriminalize possession of marijuana.

On the heels of a Canadian Senate report recommending the full legalization of marijuana, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien signaled Monday that he may ease Canada's cannabis laws.

In the annual Speech from the Throne, Canada's federal policy document (akin to the US State of the Union address), the Chrétien government said it may move toward decriminalization. Legalization would not be possible because of Canada's existing international agreements that prohibit it, the government said.

Should Canada decriminalize the possession of marijuana, which observers say is likely, it will continue a trend by Western countries. In the past year, Britain, Portugal, and Italy have all relaxed their marijuana laws, to go along with several other European countries that already have more liberal policies. At the federal level, the US is becoming increasingly isolated among its Western peers.

The Bush administration maintains that a zero-tolerance policy is the only effective way to reduce addiction and trade.

"There is a widening drug-policy gap between the US and the rest of the industrialized world," says Ethan Nedelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, a liberal foundation dedicated to reforming US drug policy. Mr. Nedelmann points out that Canada repealed its alcohol prohibition laws before the US did, it was first country to introduce free needles to intravenous drug users, and the first to permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 2001.

The Canadian Senate's Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, charged with recommending a course of action for Canada's drug policy, spent a year and a half meeting with citizens, interviewing foreign and domestic experts, and looking at dozens of studies on the use and effects of marijuana. The committee's 600-plus page report, released last month, recommends that Canada allow pot-smoking for adults and clearing the records of those convicted of possession.

The Senate committee suggests decriminalization of marijuana as a first step. Under this regime, someone found with pot would receive a warning under the civil code – like a traffic ticket – instead of facing criminal charges. Britain is introducing similar measures that are expected to become law next year.

Some 600,000 Canadians have criminal records for marijuana possession, and about 1.5 million people, or 5 percent of the population, smoke pot recreationally, according to the Canadian Medical Association.

"Drug-prohibition laws in Canada and elsewhere have failed to deter users," says Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, who chaired the Senate committee. Canada made pot illegal in 1923 and currently spends about C$2 billion (US $1.3 billion) a year in marijuana-related police and prosecution costs.

"Current drug laws are a funding device for organized crime," argues Fred McMahon, director of the social affairs center for the Fraser Institute, a free-market think tank based in Vancouver. Fraser released a report last year that buttressed the case for softer penalties.

According to Mr. McMahon, drug prohibition creates a "perverse incentive" for organized crime to run illegal trade. "Profits from drug dealing create a funding bonanza for terrorists and criminals," he says.

The Senate report comes at the time when Canada's Supreme Court is hearing a case on the constitutionality of the country's cannabis laws. In July last year, the government amended the law to make marijuana available for medicinal purposes. The Office of Cannabis Medical Access has since issued 248 licenses to grow marijuana, and more than 1,000 ill Canadians currently consume the plant.

The debate crosses party lines. Progressive Conservative Party leader Joe Clark declared in May 2001 that people caught carrying marijuana should not face criminal charges.

"There are pockets of intelligent thought on this issue in all political parties," notes Eugene Oscapella, founder of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy. "We will find that the sky doesn't fall," he says about the possible relaxing of Canada's drug laws.

What may fall on Canada, however, is the wrath of the US government, which estimates that about half of all illegally-grown pot ends up in the US.

"The problem today is that Canadian production of high-potency marijuana in British Columbia is a major source of marijuana [in the US] ... and it's spreading," declared John Walters, director of US national drug-control policy. Mr. Walters reacted to the Canadian Senate's report by warning of tighter border controls should Canada adopt softer drug laws.

"It would be a tremendous mistake for Canada to change its drug laws," echoes Eric Voth, chairman of the conservative US Institute on Drug Policy. Voth argues that since stiffening its drug laws in the 1980s, the US was able to cut drug use by as much as 50 percent.

Last week, Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, said that Canada would be making a mistake if it tried to legalize marijuana. Mr. Costa said that marijuana is a health risk, much like tobacco, and that legalizing it would send the wrong signal to countries trying to combat drug use.

According to the State Department, the US will not get involved in what it considers to be a domestic issue for Canada.

"We won't get much further than decriminalization," says the Fraser Institute's McMahon. "It would create an unmanageable problem for Canada-US relations."

Nedelmann hopes that a relaxing of Canadian laws would influence US public opinion. In 2001, a USA Today/CNN/ Gallup poll showed that one-third of Americans favor legalizing pot, versus 47 percent of Canadians according to a University of Lethbridge poll. Those supporting decriminalization stand at about 65 percent. Nevada voters will decide next month whether or not to legalize small amounts of marijuana. Several states permit marijuana to be used for medical purposes.

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