Critics say pot bill sends the wrong message News Staff
Updated: Wed. May. 28 2003 7:49 AM ET

Ottawa's move to decriminalize marijuana is meeting with criticism from the Opposition, police officers and even Liberal backbenchers.

"(The legislation) calls for fines for possession but would actually bring in lower fines for young people. That would be like offering a discount on cigarettes with a student ID card. What kind of message does this government think it's trying to send?" Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper said during question period.

Liberal MP Dan McTeague slammed the newly-unveiled legislation for not including criminal charges for people caught with marijuana while driving. Under the proposed legislation, driving while using or possessing marijuana is considered an "aggravating factor," that would result in increased fines.

McTeague is one of as many as 20 backbenchers reportedly opposed to the bill. "We're not taking into consideration the consequences," he told an Ottawa news conference.

David Griffin of the Canadian Police Association says the legislation sends the wrong message. "I'm more concerned that we're sending a message to young people: Don't drink and drive, toke and drive."

Mother Against Drunk Driving agreed, saying the legislation shouldn't be passed until there is a way to ensure police can deal with such drivers.

The legislation will make possession of small amounts of pot -- 15 grams or less of marijuana or one gram of hashish -- a minor offence, punishable by fines of up to $400. Police will decide whether to file criminal charges in cases of possession of between 15 and 30 grams.

The proposed law includes reduced penalties -- a $100 ticket -- for minors caught with pot, and increased fines for offences with so-called aggravating factors.

Pot to remain illegal

The government insists the new legislation isn't a step towards legalization. "Marijuana is harmful and will remain illegal," Justice Minister Martin Cauchon told a news conference.

He added: "The time has come to act. We need strong and forcible laws that make sense for Canadians and make sense internationally, laws that will send a strong message to young people."

Cauchon referred to the proposed changes as "alternative penalties" rather than "decriminalization," telling reporters that the legislation was needed because current pot laws, under which possession is a criminal offence, are "disproportionate."

"Does it make sense that a person who makes a bad choice should receive the lasting burden of a criminal conviction? This bill will ensure that the punishment fits the crime."

The new bill also doubles the maximum sentence for growers, raising it to 14 years in prison from the current seven.

The penalty for drug trafficking stays the same, with a maximum life sentence.

Ottawa has also introduced a $245 million strategy aimed at educating Canadians about the harm caused by pot smoking. The initiative will include a communications campaign, more research on marijuana and increased police surveillance.

Opponents say the new anti-drug campaign was hastily assembled in response to criticism of the government's plans to decriminalize pot. Together, the new bill and anti-drug strategy may seem to convey a somewhat confusing message, but Health Minister Anne McLellan told reporters the two "strike a balanced approach."

"We are putting in place a strategy that will lead to healthier Canadians and safer communities," she said. "We do not want Canadians to use marijuana, we especially don't want young people to use marijuana.

"That is why an important part of our drug strategy will focus on strong public education messages to inform Canadians of the negative health affects of marijuana."

Cauchon told reporters he expects the bill to pass by the end of the year.

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