This was the week the government of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien was going to introduce legislation that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis. It didn't happen. While the prepared text for a speech Chretien gave Tuesday night included the announcement of the decrim bill, those words vanished when Chretien actually gave the speech, and on Wednesday Justice Minister Martin Cauchon announced that no bill would be introduced for at least two more weeks.
The postponement came amid skirmishes within the ruling Liberal Party over the plan and as Cauchon traveled to Washington, DC, for a meeting with US Attorney General John Ashcroft to inform him of Canada's decrim strategy. US anti-drug officials have loudly and repeatedly expressed concern over the measure, even going so far as to threaten dire consequences for cross-border traffic if it passes.
But while drug czar John Walters, drug-fighting Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) and others have made loud noises about Canadian plans, Ashcroft was more diplomatic. "US Attorney General John Ashcroft today met with Canadian Minister of Justice Martin Cauchon as part of their ongoing dialogue on cross-border crime issues," said Justice's only statement on the meeting. "Our countries enjoy a close working relationship, and the Attorney General and the Minister often take opportunities to discuss these important issues, most recently during the Paris meeting of the G8 Justice Ministers. Attorney General Ashcroft and Minister Cauchon today discussed the full range of US-Canadian issues, including counterterrorism, counternarcotics, extradition and mutual legal assistance."
Still, if the official statement was diplomatic, Ashcroft voiced serious concerns about the decrim move, according to sources close to the meeting cited by the Toronto Star. Ashcroft reportedly told Cauchon that while he "absolutely" agreed that Canada "had the right to make its own laws," he disagreed with lightening penalties for possession and warned of a flood of high-grade Canadian marijuana entering the US. "There's no denying that there is concern on the American side," the Star's source said. "What matters now is what we do on the penalty side against illegal marijuana growing operations to shut them down."
Sensitive to accusations of knuckling under to the Americans, Cauchon insisted he did not go to Washington to "consult" with Ashcroft, but to inform him. "I just want to be clear," Cauchon said, "as Justice Minister I will do what I think is good for the Canadian population." That is brave talk, but if reports that the decrim bill will also increase penalties for cultivation and trafficking of marijuana are any indication, Cauchon's estimation of what "is good for the Canadian population" may well include deference to US concerns about relaxing the marijuana laws.
But it isn't only the Americans that the Liberal government has to worry about. Health Minister Anne McLellan has apparently gone off the reservation on the marijuana issue. McLellan, who torpedoed the medical marijuana distribution system set up by her predecessor Allan Rock, has joined the Americans in worrying aloud about the effect decriminalization would have on pot exports to the US. "I have made it very plain that until we are able to effectively deal with illegal 'grow ops' in this country, we have a major, major problem," McLellan told reporters this week.
She also warned that decriminalization could cause a possible short-term increase in marijuana use and that Canada must be prepared to deal with that spike. "It can lead to addiction, it can lead to all sorts of situations within local communities, and you need to be ready with information, with education and with treatment. And you have to be very clear about the message -- this is not about legalization," she said.
And that's why some Canadian marijuana activists are staying on the sidelines. "We do not support decriminalization," said Marc-Boris St. Maurice, head of the Canadian Marijuana Party (http://www.marijuanaparty.org). "It is virtually meaningless. It is not a step forward, but a step sideways," he told DRCNet. "Our biggest concern is that under decrim, more users will be targeted. Now, police turn a blind eye because arresting someone for cannabis is not worth the hassle, but the minute the government realizes there is money to be made, they will start ticketing pot smokers."
Also, said St. Maurice, the decrim half-measure could well leave the hundred thousand-plus Canadians involved in the marijuana business at even greater risk. "The reported plans to increase penalties for growers and traffickers really piss me off," St. Maurice said. "I work full-time for the Montreal Compassion Club, so I guess that makes me a trafficker. Also, if the government increases penalties for growing and trafficking, it will push out the peaceful mom-and-pop operators and make it all the easier for the hard-core criminals to dominate the business. That would be an unintended consequence and would be a result of the government not thinking through what it wants to do," he said.
Instead, said St. Maurice, Canada should adopt last fall's senate committee report calling for legalization and regulation of marijuana use and the pot trade. "The Nolin report is the best blueprint we have," he said.
While Eugene Oscapella of the Canadian Foundation on Drug Policy (http://www.cfdp.ca) shares St. Maurice's problems with partial measures, he told DRCNet that the decrim bill, which has yet to be seen, may address the issue of small-scale growing and sales. "They will probably increase penalties for large-scale production and trafficking," he said. "Right now the maximum penalty is seven years. They may increase that, but also perhaps reduce the penalty for the production of small quantities."
As for the delay in the decrim bill, "I am sure it is purely a coincidence that the introduction of the bill was delayed while the Justice Minister went to Washington," Oscapella said. He professed himself somewhat confused as to why the government tarried. "There is such strong support for decriminalization of simple possession," he said. "I don't understand why the government is so tremulous." Still, he said, he expects a bill will be tabled and passed, and he asked American readers to continue to participate in the debate. "We are seeing lots of letters to the editor on this topic from Americans, and that is important," Oscapella said. "We appreciate the support. Please keep it up."
Visit http://www.drcnet.org/wol/286.html#claudenolin to read DRCNet's interview with Senator Nolin, chairman of the Canadian Senate committee that called for full legalization of marijuana.