The momentum for marijuana law reform appears to be slowing within the Canadian government, due in part to fears of alienating the Bush administration. Last December, Justice Minister Maurice Cauchon vowed to introduce marijuana decriminalization legislation by the end of next month, but in remarks in Toronto last week Cauchon pushed back that timeline. Some Canadian politicians and observers believe concerns about angering the US -- already unhappy with Canadian refusals to support its Iraq invasion -- may explain part of the delay.

Although both chambers of the Canadian Parliament last year issued reports calling for marijuana law reform -- the Senate report called for outright legalization -- and Justice Minister Cauchon said the government would push for decrim, he didn't sound so certain last week. Speaking with reporters in Toronto, Cauchon said he "would be happy" if the government could introduce a decrim bill before Parliament's summer break, but that he believed Canada needed a national debate before taking any such step. He also told reporters he wanted to study the two parliamentary reports on marijuana law reform.

"What will take place in the future in terms of policy, we'll see," he said. "I told you, I would like to reform the system... We'll come forward with my policy as soon as I can."

Still, in earlier remarks before Toronto businessmen, Cauchon appeared to be standing by his commitment to move on decrim. "The criminal law is a blunt tool; it is only effective if it is applied consistently and if it reflects true social consensus on an issue," he told the Empire Club of Canada. "I am troubled by the inconsistent application of the criminal law to the possession of small amounts of marijuana for criminal use. Your children or grandchildren may not be charged if they are caught in Toronto, but kids in small towns across Canada are being charged for exactly the same behavior. This means that kids are ending up with a criminal conviction," Cauchon continued. "This can have a devastating impact on their lives -- from the types of jobs they can get, to traveling or going to university in other countries, particularly the United States," he added.

Cauchon added that he had intended to travel to the US to discuss the move with US officials, but that trip had been delayed because of the Iraq invasion. (The National Post reported Thursday that President Bush is considering canceling a scheduled May visit to Canada because of concerns that he would by met by a hostile reception from parliamentarians and mass demonstrations against his invasion of Iraq. A significant portion of Canadian public opinion has been infuriated by US Ambassador Paul Cellucci's recent remarks that many Americans are "disappointed and upset" over Canada's refusal to participate in the US invasion.)

US irritation with Canada may be a factor slowing the move to decrim, said Eugene Oscapella of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy (http://www.cfdp.ca). "The US ambassador has recently scolded Canada for not sending troops to Iraq," Oscapella told DRCNet. "There have been threats of trade sanctions and interference with cross-border commerce, so the issue may now be on hold. This tension between the two governments might actually cause our government to back off a bit, and that's a real worry."

Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, who chaired the Senate committee whose report called for outright legalization of marijuana for those over 16, has also suggested in recent days that the government won't want to further inflame relations with the US by sponsoring a decrim bill now. President Bush himself warned of increasing Canadian marijuana imports in January, calling Canadian anti-drug efforts "inadequate," and his drug czar, John Walters, has strongly criticized any Canadian proposals to relax the marijuana laws.

"The reality of this political relationship between Canada and the US is so important and so hard to predict right now," said Oscapella. "If the war drags on, that will exacerbate US criticism of Canada. I worry that something completely unrelated to our effort to change the marijuana laws will derail this process. Cauchon is the government's lead minister in this, but we also have to consider the Foreign Ministry, the ministries of industry and trade. We're on the brink of serious consequences with the Americans over Iraq, and the business community doesn't want to do anything that might endanger commerce."

Still, said Oscapella, he remained convinced that the government will move on decrim. "Their intentions remain good," he said, "and it is possible the government is delaying because it wants to introduce decrim as part of a national drug strategy, one component of which will be to decriminalize marijuana possession." The opposition Alliance Party has said it will fight decrim if it comes without a national drug strategy, Oscapella added. "The government wants as many allies as possible."

And if Cauchon actually gets around to introducing a bill, things could move fast, Oscapella added. "The government has an absolute majority in Parliament, and the New Democrats and the Parti Quebecois will vote with them on this, so even if there are defections, there are enough votes to go ahead and move this. It could end up passing very, very quickly then," he said.

But until that bill is introduced or the government acts through the regulatory process to effectively decriminalize marijuana, Canadian decrim remains in danger of becoming a collateral casualty of the US invasion of Iraq.

-- END --
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Issue #280, 3/28/03 The Week Online Needs Your Help | Editorial: I Smuggled Coca Soap into the United States | Road to Vienna: British Government Chides International Narcotics Control Board on Cannabis Rescheduling Critique | Will Canada Marijuana Decriminalization Be Collateral Damage in Iraq War? | Maryland Legislature Rebuffs Drug Czar, Passes Medical Marijuana Bill, Awaits Governor's Signature | DRCNet Interview: Ed Forchion, the New Jersey Weedman | Newsbrief: DEA Issues Final Hemp Rule, Would Ban Hemp Food Products in Weeks, Hempsters Fight Back | Newsbrief: Bill to Allow Syringe Purchases Moving in Illinois Legislature | Newsbrief: Bill to Restrict Needle Exchanges Gets Push in Rhode Island | Newsbrief: Colombia to Get $100 Million Bounty for Supporting Iraq War | Newsbrief: More Americans Dead in Colombia | Newsbrief: Lawsuit Charges Chicago Cops with Pattern of Illegal Stops, Searches of Minorities | Newsbrief: Bush to Nominate Woman Prosecutor to Head DEA | Newsbrief: Silence on Pusherstrasse -- Christiania Drug Sellers Strike for Future of "Free City" | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cop Story | Jobs at WOLA | The Reformer's Calendar
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