Canada Pot Proposal Drawing U.S. Concern

May 16, 2003 -- 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.

Seeking Permission?

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."

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."