Canadian Justice Minister Martin Cauchon's announcement last week that he supported marijuana decriminalization, coming just days before the House of Commons called for the same thing, ignited a firestorm of commentary, positive and negative, in the Canadian press, and led to much wailing south of the border. But while some outside of Canada hailed the move, the reaction from Canadian marijuana activists has been decidedly lukewarm.
Some are criticizing the proposed decriminalization for not going far enough; others believe the proposal is a subterfuge by a Liberal government that has no intention of actually acting. All the reformers DRCNet spoke with displayed a skepticism toward government officials somewhat shocking to their southern cousins, who are inclined to view Canada's political culture as less dysfunctional and less polarized than that in the US.
"Forgive me for questioning the sincerity of a politician, but we've heard all of this before," said Marc-Boris St.-Maurice, head of the Canada Marijuana Party (http://www.marijuanaparty.org), referring to Justice Minister Cauchon's plea to "give me four months" to set decriminalization in progress. "It can't be done in four months, bills must be proposed and drafted, which then have to have readings in the House of Commons," he told DRCNet. "This is not going to happen unless Cauchon has something up his sleeve."
Leading marijuana attorney Alan Young, one of the lawyers arguing the marijuana cases scheduled to be heard by the Canadian Supreme Court last week (see story below), agreed. "I don't believe Cauchon's proposal was sincere," he told DRCNet. "I think much of this is posturing. A clear majority of Canadians want to see some form of decriminalization, so floating such a proposal gains favor with the electorate. But because there will be a new government within 18 months, almost any legislative effort between now and then is doomed to failure for lack of time before the elections. I don't think the government is really ready to move forward, but it would then be able to say 'we tried and will continue to try,' as they postpone the inevitable confrontation with the Americans."
Ah, the Americans. "There are certain practicalities in North America that make decriminalization easier said than done," Young explained. "In Europe, for example, they have been able to move forward without real fear of the US response. But the Americans will be very assertive with us. John Walters has already made his position clear," he said. "There is no reason to think the US will not take retaliatory measures, and this weighs on the government's mind. Still, I think the Americans will learn to live with this. If we stand on principle, this will become a non-issue."
Even if the Canadian government surprises observers and promptly implements a decriminalization scheme, Canadian activists are not exactly thrilled. "While we applaud any changes in the law that lessen the penalties for pot smokers, this decriminalization is not the endgame," said Dana Larsen, editor of Cannabis Culture magazine (http://www.cannabisculture.org) and leader of the British Columbia Marijuana Party (http://www.bcmarijuanaparty.ca). "This could even make it harder on pot smokers if it passes, with its schedule of escalating fines. When they tried that in South Australia, people who couldn't pay the fines went to jail when they wouldn't have under the old law," he told DRCNet. "This is being proposed to make it easier on the police and the courts, not the marijuana smokers. It is not really what we want, but we're glad they're talking decriminalization and not increased penalties."
St.-Maurice seconded that notion. "Our platform is in line with the Senate report, which called for full legalization," he said. "Under this proposal, I would be paying more fines than I am right now. Right now, there is not much targeting of pot smokers, but this makes it easier to arrest and fine people."
That's right, said Brian McAndrew, longtime cannabis activist and production manager for the fledgling Cannabis Health magazine (http://www.cannabishealth.com). "With decriminalization, you still have the main problem -- prohibition," he told DRCNet. "A fine is still a penalty, law enforcement is still in your face, and it's all for something that isn't really a problem. When you look at what's available to the public for relieving their pains and tensions, pot is one of the most innocuous things there is, and it would remain penalized. What hypocrisy."