The marijuana decriminalization bill introduced by former Prime Minister Jean Chretien and reintroduced by his successor, Paul Martin, appears dead as Canadian political circles focus on what is expected to be Martin's call next week for new elections. According to a Saturday report in the Toronto Globe & Mail citing "government insiders," the decriminalization bill is not a priority for Martin's Liberal government in the one week left in the parliamentary session before Martin announces a federal election for June 28.
The proposed law, Bill C-10, would have removed possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana from the criminal law, making it instead a ticketable offense, with fines ranging from $100 to $500. It would also have allowed people to grow up to three plants, but would have increased penalties for all but the smallest growers.
Although pressure for marijuana law reform has been building in Canada for more than 30 years, the Liberals' decrim bill died the lonely death of a bastard stepchild. It was opposed by elements of the Canadian law enforcement establishment, conservative politicians, and hyperventilating US officials as too lenient, as well as by many Canadian marijuana smokers and activists and progressive politicians, who saw it as too little and its grow penalties too severe. And while the Martin government did reintroduce the bill and shepherd it partway through the legislative process, in recent weeks it has become evident that Liberal legislators were more interested in passing drugged driving legislation to deal with the anticipated tide of stoned drivers than with passing the decrim bill itself.
In Canada, a federal election dissolves parliament and kills all bills that have not been passed, so any effort to pass a new decriminalization bill after the elections will have to begin at square one.
And while Davies and the NDP ended up not supporting C-10 because it failed to go far enough -- the party platform embraces legalization in all but name -- neither was she impressed with Liberal Party leadership on the issue. "The Liberals introduced this bill and they ought to have the guts to follow through on it," she said. "I wanted to see it debated and voted on, but the government has totally caved in to pressure from the police lobby, and they're saying they want to be seen on moving on impaired driving first. That's chickenshit," she said. "Paul Martin doesn't want this bill to go forward; the government could get it through if it wanted."
"Most people feel it's a good thing the bill died because it does so little and would probably crank up the level of enforcement," said Eugene Oscapella, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Foundation (http://www.cfdp.ca). "In Vancouver right now, people are walking around freely smoking dope, but the ticketing provision would give police an excuse to go after people. In areas like BC, where the mood is definitely more tolerant, the bill was seen as a bad thing, but in other areas it would be an improvement. It depends on what the current enforcement is like."
The Conservative opposition hailed the apparent demise of the bill, but also criticized the ruling Liberals for not pushing it through. And Conservative MP Randy White, the party's criminal justice spokesman, vowed that his party would not introduce such a bill if it wins the elections. "The issue is not decriminalization," he told the Globe & Mail, adding that he preferred a national drug strategy. "The issue is, what do we do with drugs of all sorts?" White said.
It's not often that White and Vancouver marijuana seed entrepreneur and BC Marijuana Party founder Marc Emery find themselves on the same side, but the bill's death was "a good thing," said Emery. "It may have benefited some people if they only got a $150 fine instead of being arrested, but the police have said they'll give out a lot more tickets. Now, they don't take possession that seriously because it requires too much manpower," he told DRCNet. "The bill also earmarked $175 million for anti-marijuana ads in the major media. I've seen those ads, and they are nothing but blatant propaganda. We haven't done that before in Canada. If the bill is dead, that's money that doesn't get spent."
But Emery was almost looking forward to taking on the ticketing system, he said. "I have a methodology for defeating the tickets," he enthused. "Because it is a summary conviction, anyone can represent you. Call me and I will represent you. You don't even have to go to court. I will demand lab analysis of the substance in question, I will make the police officer appear and identify my client -- there are lots of possibilities for fucking up that system."
But Emery's prankery will have to await a suitable target as all eyes now turn to the forthcoming elections. While the conventional wisdom is that Prime Minister Martin and the ruling Liberals will return to power, the question is whether they will do so as a majority government or be forced to seek the support of other parties to pass key legislation. If that comes to pass, prospects for a better marijuana bill could increase.
"If there were a minority government, there would be a lot more horse trading for votes and the NDP, which supports regulation, could have some clout," predicted CFDP's Oscapella. "The NDP could say, 'if you want to pass another bill, you need to help us with this one.'"
The NDP is ready to make marijuana an issue in the elections, said Davies. "We need some sort of legalized regime," she said, "and we want the federal government to take a much stronger position for a non-punitive, rules-based approach to drugs. [NDP head] Jack Layton will deal with this very forthrightly in the campaign," she said. "In many places, this is an issue people will want to look at, and we want to be part of bringing about change. This could be a first step toward dealing with our ridiculous prohibition laws."
In Vancouver last weekend, some Canadian political figures were not waiting for an election campaign to stake out frankly pro-legalization positions. At a conference on the politics of legalizing marijuana sponsored by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (http://www.bccla.org), Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs whose 2002 report called for the outright legalization of marijuana, reiterated that clarion call.
"The federal and provincial governments could establish a regulatory framework governing the use and production of cannabis," said Nolin. "I am referring here to the concept of legalization with strong government control. As you see, for the Special Committee, legalization of cannabis does not mean establishing a "free market environment for drugs" as some people are arguing," the Conservative senator said. "After many years of hard work, I can say that our committee has succeeded in offering an alternative to prohibition that is both promising and innovative."
Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell was more flamboyant. Campbell told the meeting he supported legalization, and that he would "tax the hell out of it" and use the proceeds to fund health care and drug treatment. "What I do want is to stop seeing people go to jail. I want to stop seeing the waste of resources, our resources, taxpayers' resources," he explained. British Columbia would be in a recession if not for the pot business, he added. "Remember, the BC marijuana trade is estimated at $4 billion annually -- larger than construction or forestry," Campbell said.
And if Nolin and Campbell aren't waiting for other politicians to make the call for legalization, neither is Canada's thriving pot culture. "There are more shops opening here in Vancouver where anyone can buy it," said Emery. "We don't have to wait for the government to tell us we can do this," he said.