Cauchon to table controversial pot bill Tuesday

Canadian Press
Updated: Mon. May. 26 2003 6:14 AM ET

OTTAWA — The Liberal government, after months of hesitation, is finally ready to bring in legislation ensuring Canadians will no longer face jail time and criminal records for simple possession of marijuana.

As Justice Minister Martin Cauchon prepares to table the bill in the House of Commons on Tuesday, federal spin doctors are already at work, trying to reassure law-and-order advocates who doubt the wisdom of the move. Lightening up on users isn't the same as making pot legal, they emphasize.

Nor does it mean Ottawa is going soft on growers and traffickers, who will continue to face stiff penalties.

Government strategists have even wiped the word decriminalization from their vocabulary -- largely because they fear most people don't understand what it means.

"It was a mistake to start off talking about decriminalization," said one Liberal insider. "We should have been talking about sentencing reform."

Under the legislation it will still be against the law to possess marijuana, even for personal use.

But possession of 15 grams or less -- about 15 to 20 joints depending on how they're rolled -- will be a minor offence punishable by a fine.

The financial hurt could range from as little as $100 to around $400, depending on the amount of weed, whether it's a first offence or repeat offence, and other aggravating or mitigating factors.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien has likened it to getting a traffic ticket -- although in this case, he jokingly told a party fundraising dinner, the offence would be "losing your senses" rather than exceeding the speed limit.

In a more serious vein, Chretien has made it clear that growers and traffickers can expect tougher sentences.

He hasn't said how much tougher, but there is speculation the maximum prison term for growers could double to 14 years.

Trafficking in anything over three kilograms already carries a theoretical maximum of life, although nobody can remember the last time that kind of sentence was imposed.

There will also be a revitalized enforcement effort, with details to be spelled out Tuesday by Solicitor General Wayne Easter.

Insiders say the plan will include new funding for the RCMP and other police forces across the country.

Also to be unveiled Tuesday is a wider anti-drug strategy, co-ordinated by Health Minister Anne McLellan, who has warned of a possible upward spike in marijuana use once the sentences for possession are eased.

McLellan will try to counter that by outlining federal plans for enhanced education, research and treatment programs.

Taken as a whole, the government strategy sends something of a mixed message: nobody will go to jail for toking up, but that doesn't mean it's a good thing to do.

Alan Young, a professor at Osgoode Hall law school in Toronto who has long campaigned for reform of the pot laws, is skeptical about the Liberal approach.

"They've come up with a very confused scheme which creates the appearance of movement but really is business as usual," says Young.

"All that's really being achieved is depenalization, which simply means the removal of incarceration for under 15 grams."

Others are more generous, welcoming McLellan's promise of a broader plan that reaches beyond policing.

"We have made a very strong case for exactly those sorts of things," says Dr. Dana Hanson, president of the Canadian Medical Association.

"Just decriminalizing one particular substance in isolation, without addressing education and prevention, is not reasonable."

Reaction from the law enforcement community has been mixed at best.

RCMP commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli said Sunday he was "looking forward" to the proposed package as part of a larger anti-drug strategy.

"If we have a comprehensive package, it will not harm the work that we do and the relationship with the Americans, in my view," he said on CTV Question Period.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police favours a wider array of sentencing options, including diversion of users from the criminal courts to treatment programs.

It may even be appropriate to let some first-time offenders off with no more than a caution, says Mike Boyd, deputy chief of Toronto police and a spokesman on the issue for the national association.

But the chiefs contend it would be a mistake to wipe simple possession from the criminal law entirely.

"We have recommended that the law remain as it is, that it remain a crime (but) that there be alternative measures for dealing with different types of cases," says Boyd.

"What we do not want to see is the government take away the discretion from the police officer to apply those options."

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