Canadian Justice Minister Floats Decrim Trial Balloon, Takes Flack from All Sides 7/19/02

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Canadian Justice Minister Maurice Cauchon, who only months ago claimed society wasn't ready for marijuana decriminalization, had a change of heart beginning late last week. Now Canada's equivalent of the Attorney General is planning to replace possible jail sentences and criminal records with fines for simple marijuana possession, according to leaks from Cauchon's inner circle reported last Saturday and confirmed by Cauchon himself early this week.

On July 12, "highly placed sources in the Justice Department" told Canada Press that Cauchon was considering decriminalization, but not legalization, and that trafficking would remain a criminal offense. Under the plan, small-time users would get fines similar to parking tickets and would avoid the court system. Cauchon may broach the subject at a meeting of the Canadian Bar in London, Ontario, next month, the sources said.

On Monday, Cauchon confirmed the Canada Press report. "There is discussion to find ways to be more efficient, more effective," he told the Ottawa Citizen. "We're not talking about making it legal, we're talking about the possibility of moving ahead with what we call decriminalization." The government is proposing removing marijuana possession from the Criminal Act and placing it under the less serious Contravention Act, he said.

Cauchon added that he was responding in part to reform moves in Great Britain, which announced a forthcoming effective decriminalization of marijuana, but he also cited inequities in the way current law treats marijuana offenders. Punishment varies from locale to locale, he said. "If you look at the system that we have in place, keeping it criminal, it's not very efficient. Depending where you are across Canada, they apply or they apply the legislation that we have."

Cauchon also remarked that he would make no move until consulting widely and hearing the recommendations of the Senate committee studying drug policy changes, which is widely expected to call for decriminalization. In a preliminary report issued in May, the committee found that between 30% and 50% of young Canadians (15-24 years old) had used marijuana and 30,000 were arrested and charged with simple possession annually (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/236.html#canadiansenate).

Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin, a key player in the policy debate as head of the committee, was one of the first to start slinging arrows at Cauchon's balloon. On July 12, he scoffed at the idea of fining marijuana users. "Most of those who are caught are young people and poor people," he told Canada Press. "But they don't pay their fines. And what happens when we don't pay our fines? We go to prison."

But while reform minded politicians such as Nolin are taking aim at Cauchon's proposal as a half-measure and a growing chorus, including the Canadian Medical Association, has called for decrim, Cauchon is facing potentially more significant opposition on the right -- and even within the federal cabinet. Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay raised a caution flag on Monday as he called for consultations with law enforcement before any reforms take place. "Drugs are a very serious problem in this country, and what we have to do is do what's right and make sure we have the proper rules and laws in place," said MacAulay. "Law enforcement is quite concerned about the drug problem in this country, and they'll certainly be involved too before any changes are made."

The Canadian Police Association chimed in as well, saying it would fight any attempt to decriminalize what they call the "gateway drug." Grant Obst, head of the group, told the Citizen police needed the threat of criminal charges against users in their battle against marijuana traffickers. "It sort of gives you the hammer," said Obst, a Saskatoon police officer. "I really hope we get to consult with the minister before any dramatic moves are made in this regard."

The behemoth to the south will also play a role. US drug warriors are already threatening dire consequences were Canada to have the gall to diverge from Washington's drug policy dogma. According to a Saturday report in the Toronto Globe and Mail, members of the Senate committee exploring drug policy were told by US Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) that Canada would proceed with decrim at its peril. Members said Souder's message was clear: "Proceed and we'll crack down even more on your borders." Members also told the Globe and Mail that Souder told them BC Bud, the premium marijuana that made British Columbia famous, is as dangerous as cocaine. Drug czar John Walters, during a June visit to Quebec City, diplomatically maintained that Canada is a "sovereign nation," but also chided his hosts, saying Canada should be targeting marijuana, not decriminalizing it.

But if the wishes of the US weigh on Canadians, so does resentment at its heavy-handed tactics. Member of Parliament Libby Davies (Vancouver-New Democrat), who sits on the drug policy committee and attended the meeting with Souder told the Globe and Mail, "I thought, 'My God, what is this man talking about?' We can't be subservient to the ridiculous rhetoric coming out of the United States."

The debate in Canada will only intensify in coming months. Sen. Nolin's committee is expected to issue its final report calling for decriminalization on September 4. All hell should break loose after that.

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Issue #246, 7/19/02 Editorial: Times Change | Dutch Government Plans to Restrict Coffeeshops, End Ecstasy Harm Reduction | Nevada Marijuana Amendment Draws Flack, Praise | Canadian Justice Minister Floats Decrim Trial Balloon, Takes Flack from All Sides | Barcelona Conference Hears Link Between AIDS and Injection Drug Use -- Clinton Regrets Not Lifting Ban, Bush to Keep It | New York Marijuana Reform Party in Petition Drive to Win Ballot Status | "We're Your Good Neighbors. We Smoke Pot" -- Jeff and Tracy One Year Later | Alert: DEA Moves to Schedule 2C-T-7 | Newsbrief: Cow Dung Sniffers Have Malaysian Authorities Confounded | Newsbrief: Baltimore Homicides Continue, More Juveniles Dying Than Before | Newsbrief: Noelle Bush Imprisoned | Media Scan: Time Magazine on The Philippines, Drug Testing Protest Video Highlights | The Reformer's Calendar
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