Ottawa Weighs Pot Law Reforms

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'Personal use' may be lowered to 10 grams, sources say Liberals considering
amendments to bill to win over critics

OTTAWA - The federal government may lower the amount of "personal use" pot
it will tolerate and slightly toughen provisions of its marijuana
decriminalization bill in a bid to win over some of its staunch critics,
including those on its own backbench.

Sources say amendments under consideration include: Lowering to 10 grams
from 15 grams the amount of pot a person may possess before facing a
potential criminal conviction and record; increasing penalties for "repeat
offenders" who clearly flout the ban on pot; and imposing mandatory minimum
sentences on large-scale growing operations.

Right now, the pot bill "decriminalizes" the penalty for simple possession
proposing, instead of a criminal sanction, a ticketing scheme with fines
from $250 to $400.

A Commons committee originally recommended decriminalizing amounts of 30
grams or less, but the government selected 15 grams as its cut-off. Last
week, a source said "it's a matter of debate what constitutes personal use."

The insider emphatically denied any move to impose a stricter limit is a
move to allay concerns by Americans, saying many of the arguments the
United States presents about stronger strains of marijuana are "a myth."

"We would not deny there is high-test stuff out there, but most of the rest
is 6 to 9 per cent THC," said the source. That stands for
tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in pot.

The source said the amount of 10 grams "certainly is something people will
feel is a sensible approach."

The bill already allows stricter penalties in cases of aggravating
circumstances, such as possession of pot near a schoolyard, or while
driving or committing any indictable offence.

The bill also creates a scale of penalties for growers, with a maximum of
one year in jail and $5,000 fine for anyone caught growing one to three
marijuana plants, ranging up to a maximum 14 years' imprisonment for those
growing more than 50 plants, double the current maximum sentence.

But critics, including provincial justice ministers, say the sentencing
scheme for "grow ops" means little if judges do not impose tough penalties,
and have called for mandatory minimum sentences that would give courts no
choice.

The Liberal government is prepared to consider such an amendment, said an
insider, because it reinforces the message the government wants to send
against organized crime.

The provinces also want harsher treatment for "repeat offenders," who flout
the law by continuing to smoke a substance that remains illegal under the
bill, an option the government is open to.

"If something is there for those getting caught repeatedly, it sends an
even stronger message" against drug use, a government source conceded.

Liberal MP Dan McTeague (Pickering-Ajax-Uxbridge), a vocal critic of the
government's bill, said the government appears to be floating
"trial-balloon" amendments that are no substitute for a comprehensive drug
strategy. Still, he conceded some of the amendments said to be under
consideration are a start in addressing his concerns.

Canadian Alliance MP Randy White (Langley-Abbotsford) said he would support
amendments that create a system of increasing fines for repeat offenders,
as long as there is more funding for provinces to enforce and collect on
the fines.

But White and McTeague, among others, insist the government has still not
found a way to address the concerns over what they say is a likely increase
in drug-impaired drivers. There is now, they say, no accurate roadside test
to determine the level of impairment of a "stoned" driver, and until there
is, Canada should not move to loosen the penalties for personal drug use.

A working group of the federal, provincial and territorial justice
ministers is about to release a consultation paper on the issue, but it is
not expected to finish its work before the parliamentary committee now
studying the pot bill does.

Justice Minister Martin Cauchon is expected to appear before the special
Commons committee which begins its examination of the bill next Tuesday.


Pubdate: Tue, 14 Oct 2003
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2003 The Toronto Star
Contact: lettertoed@thestar.com
Website: thestar.com | Toronto Star | Canada's largest daily
Author: Tonda MacCharles