Canadian Government Introduces Cannabis Decriminalization Bill 5/30/03

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Canada's Liberal government introduced its long-awaited cannabis decriminalization bill Tuesday, paving the way for the elimination of criminal penalties for simple marijuana possession in the United States' northern neighbor. Under the legislation presented to parliament by Justice Minister Martin Cauchon, possession of less than 15 grams (slightly more than a half-ounce) of marijuana would no longer result in a criminal record and would be punishable only by a fine. Fines would range from $65 to $160 dollars for teenagers and $90 to $250 for adults.

But, as Cauchon took great pains to point out in presenting the bill, it will neither end marijuana prohibition nor bring the country's multi-billion dollar marijuana business out from the black market. "I want to be clear from the beginning," said the justice minister. "We are not legalizing marijuana and have no plans to do so. What we are changing is the way we prosecute certain offences."

While the Liberal proposal decreases formal sanctions for simple possession, in those considerable portions of Canada where possession busts are now not worth the bother for police, it potentially could actually increase enforcement. And while the proposal lessens penalties for possession, it increases existing penalties for all but the smallest growers.

Under the provisions of the government legislation:

  • Possession of 15 grams or less is no longer a crime but a "contravention" (similar in seriousness to a traffic violation) punishable only by a fine. Fines increase from the set minimum according to whether "aggravating" factors, such as possession while driving or near a school, are involved.
  • Possession of 15 to 30 grams may be charged as either a contravention or a criminal offense at the discretion of the officer involved. The same aggravating factors may be applied in making the charging decision.
  • Penalties are lowered for the cultivation of three or fewer plants to a maximum of 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine. Under current law, all cultivation is punishable by up to seven years in prison.
  • Penalties are lowered for the cultivation of four to 25 plants to a maximum of 18 months and a $25,000 fine, but prosecutors have the option of charging cultivation in this range as an "indictable offense" (akin to a felony) punishable by up to five years in prison.
  • Penalties are increased for the cultivation of more than 25 plants. For 26-50 plants, the penalty is a maximum of 10 years in prison, plus fines, and for more than 50 plants, 14 years in prison, plus fines.
  • Penalties for trafficking remain unchanged, with the maximum sentence remaining life in prison, although not even the largest hard drug trafficker has received more than a 20-year sentence in recent years. Canadian drug trafficking laws do not differentiate between marijuana and other controlled substances.
  • There are no provisions regarding medical marijuana.
The Liberal decrim bill, strange hybrid critter that it is, is being framed by the government as part of a larger National Antidrug Strategy, which will spend US $175 million over the next five years on drug prevention, treatment and enforcement, including a campaign to discourage marijuana use.

"We do not want Canadians to use marijuana," said Health Minister Anne McLellan, who lobbied hard against any liberalization of the laws within the government. "We especially don't want young people to use marijuana. That is why an important part of our drug strategy will focus on strong public education messages to inform Canadians of the negative health affects of marijuana."

While the Liberal legislation sparked opposition from the usual suspects -- the Canadian Police Association called it "a hastily put together package that is held together with Band-Aids and duct tape" -- and congratulations from groups like the Canadian Bar Association, the reaction from drug reformers and marijuana activists and consumers was tepid at best.

"This is one step forward, one step back," said Dana Larsen, president of the British Columbia Marijuana Party (http://www.bcmarijuanaparty.ca), headquartered in the country's biggest marijuana-growing province. "Decriminalization is a small step forward, but this law will not make things easier for Canada's marijuana people," he told DRCNet. "Here in Vancouver, now the police pretty much leave you alone or they just hassle you and take your stash. With the fines and ticketing, you end up with more punishment."

That plaint was echoed by members of the small crowd openly smoking pot at a city park adjoining Nelson, British Columbia's, Holy Smoke Culture Center and Psyche-Deli. Under a de facto arrangement with Nelson police, the lawbreakers go unbothered, but some worried that could change. "Now they leave us alone," one exhaled, "but if they can make some money from it, who knows?" Another had a more fundamental objection. "It is a sacred herb," he said. "The government should stay away."

"Should I weep at the criminal stupidity of the government or give it credit for half-measures?" wondered Eugene Oscapella of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy (http://www.cfdp.ca). "We have long maintained that the possession, use or transfer of drugs for personal purposes should not be a crime, so we support decrim and a ticketing scheme," he told DRCNet. "But increasing the penalties for cultivation will tend to drive out the mom-and-pop operations and deliver the trade to larger criminal organizations that are less worried about law enforcement."

A Toronto-based group working for marijuana legalization echoed and amplified Oscapella's concerns. "Cannabis, which currently is legal in Ontario due to court rulings, will continue to be used by Canadians regardless of the amount of money spent on American-style anti-drug propaganda, in this case $245 million [Canadian] dollars worth," pronounced Ontario Consumers for Safe Access to Recreational Cannabis (http://www.ocsarc.org). "The government of Canada should forget about sending a message to Canadians. Cannabis consumers are well informed, productive citizens, and can make up their own minds and choose to put what they want into their own bodies," said OCSARC communications director Tim Meehan in a press release. "The Minister of Health, instead of repeating the same reefer madness bunk, should instead focus on promoting less harmful ways of using cannabis -- which will be used regardless of what the law is -- such as vaporization as opposed to smoking -- and follow the Senate committee's recommendation to legalize this natural herb. This law and drug strategy is a harmful half-measure that will not accomplish anything -- except the appearance of doing something about the problem."

Objections from drug warriors and reformers notwithstanding, the legislation is likely to become law by year's end. Under parliamentary systems like Canada's, governments by definition control a legislative majority, and while there is some grumbling from the Liberal back benches, Prime Minister Chretien should be able to push the bill through before he leaves office in February.

Still, said Oscapella, it is not yet a done deal, and a political battle remains. "There will be pressure from the US, there will be pressure from police groups, there will be completely dishonest interpretations of the legislation, and it is important that American reformers who have so gracefully supported us continue to do so," he said. "So many Americans have written to politicians and newspapers to say 'don't do what the US is doing,' and they have been a significant force in educating the public and the politicians. Please keep it up."

The BCMP's Larsen also thought the bill would pass, but remained cautious. "I think we'll see it by the fall or winter, but there could be problems. I'll believe it when it happens."

And if it does happen, the BCMP is determined not to let decriminalization take the wind out of ending marijuana prohibition. "As activists, we can work with this," said Larsen. "We will challenge this law if it actually becomes law. People will have nothing to lose by going to court instead of paying the fine. We want people to plead not guilty, to use their appearances to make speeches, to jam up the courts with marijuana offenders, to make them spend a lot more money than they'll make on fines. This is not enough."

The bill is available online at:
http://www.parl.gc.ca/37/2/parlbus/chambus/house/bills/government/C-38/C-38_1/C-38TOCE.html

A background paper on the bill is available online at:
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/english/media/releases/2003/2003_34bk2.htm

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Issue #289, 5/30/03 Editorial: For Decency's Sake, No More No-Knock Drug Raids | Canadian Government Introduces Cannabis Decriminalization Bill | Ed Rosenthal to be Sentenced Wednesday -- Could Escape Mandatory Minimum as Pleas for Leniency Roll In, Supporters Prepare to Rally | DRCNet Book Review: "Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use," by Jacob Sullum (Tarcher & Putnam, 24.95 HB) | Democratic Presidential Contender Endorses Medical Marijuana -- Ohio's Kucinich First Out of the Gate | Saying Yes: New Book Offer from DRCNet | Action Alerts: Medical Marijuana, HEA Drug Provision, Global Legalization and Drug Treaty Reform Petition | Newsbrief: NYPD Under Fire in Death of Woman in Botched Drug Raid | Newsbrief: Federal Hepatitis C Control and Prevention Bill Filed | Newsbrief: Mississippi Drug Czar Not One to Let the Law Get in His Way | Newsbrief: The Hash Fields of Morocco | Newsbrief: Dutch Coffee Shops Take Hit in Anti-Tobacco Campaign | Newsbrief: New Zealand to War on Evil Meth | Newsbrief: Garcia Marquez Takes Back His Legalization Comments, Sort Of | Newsbrief: Gambian Narcs Mar Marley Remembrance with Raids | Newsbrief: Japanese Author, Legalization Advocate Gets Suspended Sentence for Marijuana Possession | Reflections Seeking Submissions for Special Issue on Prison | The Reformer's Calendar
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