The process of reforming Canada's marijuana laws has moved at the pace of the Kokanee Glacier, but it now appears that cannabis decriminalization will be a reality this year. Prime Minister Jean Chretien has said so, the Liberal Party contenders to be his successor are climbing on board, and the public is right behind, according to a recent national poll.
"We will soon introduce legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana so that young people do not have unnecessary criminal records for the rest of their lives," Chretien announced at a party fundraising dinner in Ottawa Tuesday night. "At the same time we will have a drug strategy to discourage young people from using drugs, and which will target drug traffickers."
It has become apparent that such a position is increasingly uncontroversial, even beneficial, for Canadian politicians. A poll released this week provided the latest evidence. A national poll for Sun Media conducted by Leger Marketing found that an overwhelming 83% of Canadians favor some sort of liberalization of the nation's marijuana laws. The poll found 20% supporting legalization, 43% supporting legalization for medical purposes and 20% supporting decriminalization. Only 14% favor the status quo.
"It seems that with just 14% now saying it should be illegal, that's really saying people think changes needed to be made soon in some way, shape or form," said Leger Marketing pollster Leslie Martin.
Other polls have shown support for marijuana decriminalization at near 50% and support for medical marijuana at above 60% of the voters.
Politicians are beginning to take notice. Two of the three leading contenders for the governing Liberal Party's leadership after Chretien takes his planned retirement have endorsed decrim, while a third has waffled.
Sheila Copps, one of the candidates, added her name to the list of backers, saying she "absolutely" supported decrim. "I support it, but I haven't been on record, so I am now," the Liberal leadership candidate told Canada Press Sunday.
She joins frontrunner Paul Martin, who told Sun Media the same day he supported decrim but not legalization. "I think the idea of giving a young person a criminal record because they happened to get caught with a very, very small quantity (5-30 grams) once in their life -- I don't think that's what we should be doing," Martin said. "But I would not, under any circumstances, make it legal."
So when is decrim coming? Justice Minister Martin Cauchon, who was also at the Tuesday fundraiser in Ottawa, told Reuters "as soon as possible" and definitely before parliament takes its summer recess in June.
Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin, chair of the Senate committee that authored the report calling for the outright legalization of cannabis for those over 16, told a Washington, DC, press conference this week he expected a measure to pass by Christmas. Nolin took pains, however, to point out that "decriminalization" is not a correct term for Canada's pending cannabis law reform, which is more accurate described as "depenalization" -- the lowering of penalties with use continuing to be illegal.
Looks like Canada may celebrate the New Year in a new way.