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Ottawa loosens pot law

By Hempology | May 28, 2003

Changes draw howls of protest from opposition, praise from Bar Association

From the Times Colonist, May 28, 2003

by the CanWest News Service and The Canadian Press

OTTAWA – The Chrétien government moved Tuesday to eliminate
criminal penalties for simple possession of marijuana, drawing praise
from lawyers, cautious support from doctors and brickbats from police,
opposition MPs and some of its own backbenchers.

Under legislation introduced by Justice Minister Martin Cauchon, possession
of up to 15 grams of pot would be a minor offence that carries no criminal record.

He said he hopes his bill will become law by the end of the year.

Canadians under age 18 who are caught with less than 15 grams of marijuana
would receive $100 fines and adults would be ticketed $150.

Fines would increase to $250 for youths and $400 for adults for possession while
driving, committing an offence or being caught in or near a school.

Police estimated that 15 grams is the equivalent of 15 to 30 cigarettes, depending
on how they are rolled.

Possession of one gram or less of hash would warrant fines starting at $200.

“Let me be clear fromt he beginning, we are not legalizing marijuana and we have
no plans to do so,” cautioned Cauchon, sensitive to a chorus of complaints both
domestically and in the United States that Canada is relaxing its drug laws.

His proposals also include an array of penalties to counter an escalation in marijuana
grow houses run by organized crime, with the maximum sentence being doubled to 14 years
from the current seven.

The legislation was accompanied by the renewal of a lapsed national drug strategy,
which will focus on an advertising campaign to convince Canadians that drugs are
dangerous, put money into community prevention and treatment programs and give the
RCMP an extra $57 million to counter the tens of thousands of grow operations
that have sprouted across the country.

“Let me be clear, we do not want Canadians to use marijuana, we especially do not
want young Canadians to use marijuana,” said Health Minister Anne McLellan. “We are
going to be sending a lot of powerful messages around the harmful effects of drug

The strategy, however, pledges to spend $245 million in th enext five years, less than
half of the $440 million over four years that the Liberal government promised in its
2000 election platform.

The new funding, the bulk of which will be spent in the funal years of the strategy,
amounts to about a 10-per-cent increase to the $500 million annually that the federal
government now spends to fight illegal drug use.

Dave Griffin, executive director of the Canadian Police Association, describe the
federal initiative as a “hastily put together package hung togteher by Band-Aids
and duct tape.”

One of the association’s numerous concerns is that there are no minimum penalties
for marijuana grow operations, even though judges routinely hand down jail sentences
of about six months to one year for the most serious offenders.

Police want to retain discretion to lay criminal charges instead of handing out
fines, particularly for repeat offenders and people caught driving while impaired.

For Canadians caught with 15 to 30 grams of marijuana, police will retain discretion
whether to charge fines or lay criminal charges.

The Liberals were accused in the House of Commons on Tuesday of further alienating
the United States, which has been vocal about its opposition to marijuana

Solicitor General Wayne Easter said that the Liberals have heard the complaints
loud and clear.

“At the end of the day, the govenrment has to make a judgement call,” he said.
“Certainly there wil lbe some reaction. But they understand that we have the
soverign right to make our own pot laws.”

Rand White, the Canadian Alliance’s solicitor-general critic, predicted that the
new drug strategy will fail – just as its predecessor did – because no one is in
charge. Among other things, the government ignored a Commons committee’s
recommendation to spend $1.5 million on the office of a national drug co-ordinator,
similar to the national drug czar in the U.S.

The Canadian Bar Association congratulated Cauchon for his “courage and leadership”
and called decriminalization of minor possession a positive move.

“The heavy hand of our criminal law should be reserved for problems that cause
serious harm,” said bar president Simon Potter.

The Canadian Medical Association welcomed McLellan’s commitment to prevention
and treatment but warned more funding will be needed.

“We can only view today’s announcemnet as a first step,” said Dr. Dana Hansen,
president of the group.

The proposed legislation is on a tight timetable to be passed before Prime Minister
Jean Chrétien, one of its strongest promotes, retires early next year.

Liberal MP Joe Fontana said back-benchers still haev a number of concerns and won’t
be in any rush to vote for the bill.

“I’m not sure that there’s a bit appetite to move this thing as quickly through the
process as possible,” he said.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving called on Cauchon to delay decriminalization until
police have the technology to enforce drug-impaired driving. No test is available
that’s comparable test to the breathalyser for drunk driving.

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