U.S. briefed on Ottawa's marijuana law plans

CTV.ca News Staff
Updated: Wed. May. 14 2003 6:16 AM ET

Opposition leaders are irritated that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has heard the details of the government's controversial plan to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana before the law is even presented in Parliament.

Justice Minister Martin Cauchon met with Ashcroft Tuesday to brief him on the government's plan.

"There goes Canadian sovereignty up in smoke,'' complained NDP Leader Jack Layton. "Here's the American government advising on what Canadian policy will be before the House of Commons even has a look at it. It's quite astounding.''

Conservative leader Joe Clark agreed that Cauchon should have come to Parliament "before he went trotting off to the White House." And Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe wondered why it was so important to "obtain the permission of Washington."

Before he left for Washington, Cauchon told reporters he was confident his ideas would be well received in Washington.

"I think both countries are moving in the same direction," Cauchon told reporters. "We want to maintain the illegal use of drugs in our countries. We want to ensure that we can send a positive message to Canadians.

"And we also want ensure that we can enforce the law. And that's what we're doing here. That's what we will continue to do."

Cauchon's office said the meeting with Ashcroft was private and would not discuss what the pair spoke about. But it was expected Cauchon would stress that although the penalties for possession would be changing, marijuana would remain illegal.

Cauchon briefed the Liberal cabinet on the proposal Tuesday ahead of his trip to Washington. He said he would be consulting his caucus on Wednesday and will then "make the decision as to when we will move forward."

Prime Minister Jean Chretien told reporters that it's important to keep communication open between Canada and the U.S.

"We will not make it legal, the sentences will be different, it will tougher for the growers, the distributors," the PM said after the weekly cabinet meeting. "The minister is going there, he will explain that."

The details of the plan are not yet known, but reports say that the bill would see that those who caught with under 15 grams of marijuana would be issued a fine similar to that of a traffic ticket, rather than hit with jail time.

Cauchon will also move to boost penalties for growers and traffickers. And the government is widely expected to announce new spending on drug prevention and treatment, aimed at discouraging pot use.

Washington has expressed concerns about the proposal for relaxing penalties for pot possession. U.S. officials say, for one thing, it could lead to delays at the border. Earlier this month, John Walters, director of the White House office of National Drug Control Policy, said such a policy could also increase crime and would therefore pose a threat to U.S. citizens.

There is already some evidence the Liberal plans has been affected by the criticism from south of the border. The 15-gram limit for non-criminal possession is half the 30 grams recommended by a Commons committee.

Earlier reports said the bill could be presented in the House by Thursday. Cauchon said it will definitely be tabled before the summer recess.

Complaints in Canada

In Canada, medicinal marijuana users are surprisingly opposed to decriminalization, saying it will make it more difficult for them to obtain pot.

"We're talking about raising fines and raising the penalties for distribution and that's certainly something that's going to have an effect on compassion clubs," said Philippe Lucas of Vancouver Island Compassion Society.

Lucas told CTV's Canada AM on Tuesday that decriminalization is a "half measure" and that Canada should keep up with some other western countries and legalize pot.

"We're just inching ahead of the U.S. and not really in touch with the rest of the world," he said.

Lucas added that rather that reduce the caseloads moving through Canada's justice system, decriminalization would clog the courts with offenders who haven't paid marijuana-related fines.

Plus, he adds "decriminalization doesn't affect the worst part of our drug laws and that's the establishment of a black market."

© Copyright 2003 Bell Globemedia Inc.