Canada Pot Proposal Drawing U.S. Concern

Noting that many Americans support reducing or eliminating prison sentences for minor drug-possession offenses as well as the medical use of marijuana, Nadelmann said the Bush administration is pushing an extremist position with an "ideological fervor not unlike Carrie Nation and the temperance movement."

Canada's move toward decriminalizing pot, Nadelmann said, would highlight that extremism. "It's one thing for the Bush administration to have to deal with the fact that more and more of the industrialized world is moving toward legal regulation of marijuana, but to have our closest neighbor and ally talking and acting in favor of it further legitimizes it."

Nadelmann, who visited Vancouver earlier this month to discuss drug policy initiatives, said Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell told him that federal ministers were feeling concerned about pressure from U.S. officials regarding the marijuana proposal.

But Mike Murphy, a spokesman in Cauchon's office, said there was no pressure from U.S. officials to vet the plan before it was introduced in the Canadian legislature. "It was a meeting that was conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect. It was a cordial meeting in which items of mutual interest were discussed," Murphy said.

The U.S. Justice Department had no further comment beyond a joint press release issued after the meeting, which said Ashcroft and Cauchon discussed the full range of U.S.-Canadian issues, including counterterrorism, counternarcotics, extradition and mutual legal assistance.

In spite of a growing list of disputes with Canada — ranging from its opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq and an ongoing dispute among Canadian legislators over the U.S. National Defense Missile Program — Murphy stressed that the drug policy initiative was not creating another snag in U.S.-Canada ties.

"The U.S. is a great friend and important ally," Murphy said. "There's been some misinformation out there. The proposal is not calling for the legalization of marijuana. Marijuana possession in small quantities will still be illegal. What we're talking about is an alternative penalty program."

Creating a New Problem?

Not all ministers were angered by the delay of the decriminalization proposal. Health Minister Anne McLellan expressed concern that passage of the proposal would lead to a spike in marijuana use. She cited statistics showing that usage rose in the 12 U.S. states immediately after marijuana was decriminalized. She noted, however, that usage in those states eventually returned to original levels.

She said she would not back the proposal until she had funding for a strategy to deal with increased usage or addiction.

Howard Simon, spokesman for the U.S.-based Partnership for a Drug-Free America, echoed McLellan's concern. Simon's group focuses on helping American kids and teens reject substance abuse. There are two particularly influential factors that affect decisions to try drugs, Simon said: the level of perceived risk and the level of perceived social approval. "If you lessen one it will affect the other," he said.

However, whether a country regulates a substance or not, Simon said, may make little difference in the end.

If parents talk with their kids regularly, openly and honestly, kids will be better equipped to choose not to use drugs, he said. And helping kids stay away from drug use will likely steer them away from drug use in adulthood. "In the final analysis it's about choice, whether it's a legal or illegal product."

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