Ottawa -- The federal government signalled in yesterday's Throne Speech
that it will move toward decriminalizing marijuana, but left enough wiggle
room to elude controversy.

A declaration that the government will possibly decriminalize marijuana was
the strongest indicator yet of the government's desire to move toward
decriminalization, adopting leanings already expressed by Justice Minister
Martin Cauchon.

While the pledge was guarded, the mention in the speech was intended to
create momentum for the liberalization of marijuana laws.

"The government . . . will act on the results of parliamentary
consultations with Canadians on options for change in our drug laws,
including the possibility of the decriminalization of marijuana
possession," the speech stated.

However, after the speech Mr. Cauchon made no promises of action. He said
only that he intends to update the government's national drug strategy, and
that reconsidering marijuana laws will be part of that. "We'll see. It's
going to be part of an overall position from the government."

The choice of language in the speech was unusually tepid =97 Throne Speeches
tend to be broad and vague, but rarely promise "possibilities" on specific
questions. But in official Ottawa, the inclusion of any mention of a policy
shift in a Throne Speech raises its priority within the bureaucracy and
sets wheels moving.

A senior government official said the mention was clearly a signal that the
Liberals want to decriminalize marijuana =97 but they have decided to test
the water further in the face of opposition.

A go-ahead signal on decriminalization would be certain to renew opposition
from groups such as the Canadian Police Association =97 and from the U.S.
government, which still supports a broad zero-tolerance policy.

John Walters, the Bush administration's drug czar, criticized a Canadian
Senate committee report that favoured full legalization of marijuana, and
Canadian government officials acknowledged privately that the prospect of
decriminalization here will rile the U.S. government.

The official said it was Mr. Cauchon who pushed for the inclusion of the
idea in the Throne Speech, because he wants to see decriminalization=
through.

Mr. Cauchon has already said he favours decriminalization, which would see
jail terms, stiff fines and criminal records for marijuana possession
replaced by the equivalent of a traffic ticket. But he has said Canadians
are not ready for full legalization, which would allow the open sale of pot.

The Justice Minister's push for decriminalization may have gained impetus
when a Senate committee report came out.

"It's Goldilocks policy making," said Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett, who
favours legalization. "Some things are too hot, some things are too cold,
and this is just right."

While Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper said the Commons can debate
the issue and Alliance MPs will take "different views" on it, some more
socially conservative Liberal MPs in the Liberal caucus were upset.

Dan McTeague, MP for Pickering-Ajax-Uxbridge, argued that modern marijuana
is highly toxic and possessing it should remain a crime: "I don't think
that the Canadian public has come to one mind on the decriminalization of
marijuana," he said.

Pubdate: Tue, 01 Oct 2002
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2002, The Globe and Mail Company
Contact: letters@globeandmail.ca