Resentful Canadian legislators who want to decriminalize carrying around a decent-sized stash of marijuana are accusing their prime minister of giving in to U.S. meddling aimed at nipping the domestic drug plan in the bud.
Canada delayed introducing a proposal to decriminalize marijuana possession after its justice minister met Tuesday in Washington with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien is taking a pounding from opposition legislators angered that his administration floated the proposal with U.S. officials before discussing it with them. Reacting to Justice Minister Martin Cauchon's meeting with Ashcroft, New Democrat leader Jack Layton said, "There goes Canadian sovereignty up in smoke," The Associated Press reported.
The proposal would make possession of 15 grams or less of pot — enough marijuana for approximately 20 joints — a minor offense. Offenders would face fines on par with those for traffic tickets, rather than jail terms or criminal records.
Cauchon stresses that the proposal does not legalize marijuana. Instead, it is an attempt to shift penalties. The proposal would stiffen penalties for plant-growing operations and traffickers. He argues that the current penalty system has left thousands of Canadians needlessly tarred with criminal records and that cases on minor marijuana offenses are clogging the courts.
Canadian opposition legislators were angered not only that the Chretien administration discussed the drug plan with Washington first, but also by the appearance that Canada was seeking U.S. permission to pursue a domestic policy.
Before his Washington visit, Cauchon had also discussed the plan with Ashcroft at a recent Group of Eight summit.
When the proposal was put forward in a policy speech late last year, U.S. officials were quick to voice their opposition. John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Policy, warned that the decriminalization proposal would increase both Canada's drug problem and the flow of marijuana to the United States.
Both Walters and U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci have said a decriminalization program in Canada could lead to major slowdowns at border crossings as U.S. Customs and immigration officials would be more vigilant in searching for drug smugglers.
The original proposal would have decriminalized possession of 30 grams or less, and had been slated to be introduced in Parliament this week.Cauchon downplayed suggestions that the delay was prompted by U.S. pressure, and said he would introduce the proposal shortly after the legislature's recess next week.
Bullied by Bush?
According to Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the U.S.-based Drug Policy Alliance, some Canadian politicians were expressing concern about possible U.S. retaliation for the policy.
"I think they are feeling bullied and intimidated, especially with Cellucci and Walters being so strident and threatening," Nadelmann said.
Nadelmann, whose group supports making marijuana legally available for medical purposes and ending criminal penalties for marijuana, except those involving distribution of drugs to children, said no decriminalization program is perfect, but U.S. policy is failing. The enormous expenditures and continuing high incarceration rates suggest, Nadelmann said, that America needs a new approach to its "war on drugs."