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Ottawa tiptoes toward relaxing marijuana laws

By Hempology | October 4, 2002

Speech signals government’s willingness to consider decriminalizing possession

From the Globe And Mail, October 1st, 2002

By Campbell Clark

OTTAWA — The federal government signalled in yesterday’s Throne Speech that it will move toward decriminalizing marijuana, but left enough wiggle room to elude controversy.

A declaration that the government will possibly decriminalize marijuana was the strongest indicator yet of the government’s desire to move toward decriminalization, adopting leanings already expressed by Justice Minister Martin Cauchon.

While the pledge was guarded, the mention in the speech was intended to create momentum for liberalization of marijuana laws.

“The government . . . will act on the results of parliamentary consultations with Canadians on options for change in our drug laws, including the possibility of the decriminalization of marijuana possession,” the speech stated.

However, after the speech Mr. Cauchon made no promises of action. He said only that he intends to update the government’s national drug strategy, and that reconsidering marijuana laws will be part of that. “We’ll see. It’s going to be part of an overall position from the government.”

The choice of language in the speech was unusually tepid — Throne Speeches tend to be broad and vague, but rarely promise “possibilities” on specific questions. But in official Ottawa, the inclusion of any mention of a policy shift in a Throne Speech raises its priority within the bureaucracy and sets wheels moving.

A senior government official said the mention was clearly a signal that the Liberals want to decriminalize marijuana — but they have decided to test the water further in the face of opposition.

A go-ahead signal on decriminalization would be certain to renew opposition from groups such as the Canadian Police Association — and from the U.S. government, which still supports a broad zero-tolerance policy.

John Walters, the Bush administration’s drug czar, criticized a Canadian Senate committee report that favoured full legalization of marijuana, and Canadian government officials acknowledged privately that the prospect of decriminalization here will rile the U.S. government.

The official said it was Mr. Cauchon who pushed for the inclusion of the idea in the Throne Speech, because he wants to see decriminalization through.

Mr. Cauchon has already said he favours decriminalization, which would see jail terms, stiff fines and criminal records for marijuana possession replaced by the equivalent of a traffic ticket. But he has said Canadians are not ready for full legalization, which would allow the open sale of pot.

The Justice Minister’s push for decriminalization may have gained impetus when a Senate committee report came out.

“It’s Goldilocks policy making,” said Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett, who favours legalization. “Some things are too hot, some things are too cold, and this is just right.”

While Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper said the Commons can debate the issue and Alliance MPs will take “different views” on it, some more socially conservative Liberal MPs in the Liberal caucus were upset.

Dan McTeague, MP for Pickering-Ajax-Uxbridge, argued that modern marijuana is highly toxic and possessing it should remain a crime.

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