Canada's governing Liberal Party announced Monday that it will consider decriminalizing the possession of marijuana. The move fell short of a recent Senate select committee report recommending outright legalization and regulation of Canada's multi-billion dollar pot trade, but was still enough to elicit grunted warnings from US drug warriors.
Representing Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Adrienne Clarkson used the occasion of the Throne Speech, where the government lays out its annual agenda, to tell a packed Senate chamber that a new government drug strategy will emphasize treatment, but will also move on the marijuana issue. "The government will expand the number of drug treatment courts," Clarkson told the assembled lawmakers. "It will act on the results of parliamentary consultations with Canadians on options for change in our drug laws, including the possibility of the decriminalization of marijuana possession."
The mention of marijuana law reform in the Throne Speech was remarkably tentative -- mentioning only the "possibility" of decrim -- and is certain to please few, but signals that the Liberals may be ready to decriminalize. Justice Minister Maurice Cauchon had called for decrim weeks before being upstaged by the Senate committee call for outright legalization, but was vague when questioned after the Throne Speech. "We'll see," he told the Toronto Globe & Mail. "It's going to be part of an overall position from the government."
The Canadian government is certain to face renewed opposition from the US government and from groups such as the Canadian Police Association if it indeed moves to decriminalize. But neither have they pleased Canadian marijuana advocates and drug policy reformers. Like the British government of Tony Blair, the Chretien government may be headed for a middle-of-the-road policy where users could escape with citations, but their suppliers would remain criminalized. According to recent polls, almost half of Canadians support outright legalization, while as many as seven out of ten support decriminalization.
"The decriminalization scheme is not satisfying to anyone in the marijuana movement in Canada," said Vancouver marijuana seed maven Marc Emery. "Even the mayor of my city has called for full legalization. Still, it's a sign the world is changing," he told DRCNet.
Eugene Oscapella of the Canadian Drug Policy Foundation (http://www.cdpf.ca) was similarly less than overwhelmed. "Our position is that it should not be a criminal offense for an adult to possess, produce, or transport small quantities of cannabis, or any other drug, for that matter. Larger amounts should be regulated, with age limits," he told DRCNet. "This doesn't go as far as we would like to see it go," he said. "Many people in the reform community here agree that decriminalization addresses only one small issue -- the issue of criminal records for possession. All of the police powers associated with the enforcement of marijuana prohibition would remain. The only real advance would be the lack of the criminal penalty," he said.
Without question, decriminalization would have an impact. Roughly 25,000 Canadians are arrested for marijuana possession each year, accounting for almost half of all drug arrests. While actual penalties vary widely depending on location, pot users face a criminal record, a $700 fine and up to six months in jail.
"Knowing the impediments that a criminal record can cause, the lack of a criminal penalty would be an advance," said Oscapella, "but will that become an excuse for not doing anything else?"
That's a question that also concerns Emery, who mixes marijuana entrepreneurship with activism as founder and president of the British Colombia Marijuana Party (http://www.bcmarijuanaparty.ca). "We've been lobbying to amend the law to allow the growing of up to ten plants, he said. "I had a three-hour lunch the other day with the vice chair of the House committee examining the drug laws, and I hope the committee will go further than this decrim in its report." That report is due in November.
The Bush administration isn't waiting until then to weigh in against any liberalization of Canada's marijuana laws. "We recognize Canada's sovereignty, but caution the Canadian people not to fall for the same myths about marijuana that far too many Americans have fallen for," US drug czar John Walters said in statement delivered Tuesday to the Globe & Mail. "We have learned through hard experience that marijuana is a dangerous drug with serious public health and social consequences, and I hope the Canadian government does not head down the risky path of decriminalization or legalization."
While Walters played good cop, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), chairman of the US House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, played bad cop, threatening Canada with border hassles if it moved to liberalize the marijuana laws. "Obviously Canada can do whatever it wants with its laws," Souder told the Globe & Mail. "But to the degree there's less harmonization with our laws, it means that the border traffic is going to slow down. "If there's a higher risk of illegal drugs moving, because decriminalization functions as de facto legalization... we're not going to sit idly by and not check."
"Thank you for your interest, Mr. Drug Czar," replied Oscapella, "but most Canadians would say let us make our own mistakes. Canadians don't like being pushed around. We are economically vulnerable and we can't always challenge the US, but we do get our backs up a bit when pushed. Don't misunderstand," he continued, "our quarrel is not with the people of the US, who very much like us realize how futile and destructive this drug war is. Our quarrel is with the US administration."
"Comments like those from your drug czar only create resentment toward the US," added Emery. "Every time the drug czar threatens to tighten the border, that means he's fucking with us, and that gives more people the courage to oppose him because they resent the interference. But we have to consider the US position. I tell the Senate and Commons committees that if we move forward here, that will likely help lead to change in the US."