Canada to Decriminalize Cannabis-By Kim Lunman

The Liberal government is preparing to move ahead in the new year with legislation to decriminalize marijuana, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said yesterday. “If we’re talking about that question of decriminalizing marijuana, we may move ahead quickly as a government,” he said.

Changes will likely be introduced “some time in the new year,” Mr. Cauchon said, but he would not be much more specific about when. “I don’t like to give you a date or a time frame, but let’s say the beginning of next year, the four first months of next year,” he said.

The government signaled in October’s Throne Speech that it would move toward decriminalization. Mr. Cauchon had hinted previously that he would consider doing so.

He made his remarks yesterday after a special parliamentary committee issued a report on the non-medical use of drugs that recommended establishing safe injection sites for heroin addicts. The all-party committee of MPs, which has studied drug abuse over the past 18 months, will release its findings on marijuana in a separate report Thursday.

Mr. Cauchon has said in the past that he would consider decriminalizing marijuana possession by removing it from the Criminal Code and making it an offence punishable with a fine instead of a criminal record.

Sources told The Canadian Press yesterday that the report will adopt that position and also recommend letting Canadians grow pot for personal use.

In September, a Senate committee on illegal drugs went further than that, recommending legalizing marijuana for people 16 and older. John Walters, the U.S. administration’s drug czar, criticized that report, and Canadian government officials acknowledged privately that the prospect of decriminalization will rile the U.S. government, which has long waged war against illegal drugs.

Under the changes Mr. Cauchon is considering, an individual found with marijuana would get a warning under the Civil Code, something like a traffic ticket, instead of facing criminal charges.

Similar measures are expected to become law next year in Britain.

Canadian Alliance MP Randy White, vice-chairman of the parliamentary committee, said he would not oppose decriminalization for personal consumption if the amount of marijuana was five grams or less.

“It has to do with criminal convictions for being caught smoking a joint,” Mr. White said. “Far too many people are smoking it.”

Alliance MP Keith Martin has introduced a private member’s bill recommending decriminalization of marijuana possession for people found with 100 grams or less.

“We know the status quo is a failure,” he said. “The war on drugs has been a failure.”

Dr. Martin, a Victoria physician, said he believes consumption of marijuana would decrease if it were decriminalized.

The maximum amount at which possession would be decriminalized is expected to be a topic of debate.

About 600,000 Canadians have criminal records for possession of marijuana, and about 1.5 million people, or 5 per cent of the population, smoke it recreationally, the Canadian Medical Association says.

Canada made pot illegal in 1923 and spends about $1.3-billion a year in marijuana-related police and prosecution costs.

When asked about the suggestion in yesterday’s report that the government back pilot projects for safe injection sites for drug users in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, Mr. Cauchon said: “Just give me the time to read the report, see the recommendations, and as Justice Minister, I’ll get back to you.”

The report called for supervised injection sites for heroin users and for making methadone available to addicted prison inmates.

“We must have a significant shift in the way we think about substance abuse,” said Liberal MP Paddy Torsney of Burlington, Ont., chairwoman of the Commons committee. “There’s a huge body of evidence that tells us doing the same things we’ve been doing will have the same results. Those results are unacceptable.”

She refused to say whether the committee would back the Senate report’s recommendation to legalize marijuana.

The Commons committee’s report, which had 39 recommendations, also proposed the appointment of a Canadian drug commissioner, increased funds for the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and treatment programs for fetal alcohol syndrome .

“We’re not suggesting anybody be soft on drugs,” Ms. Torsney said. “We’re suggesting that people deal with the health issues and societal issues that are causing concerns across this country. And we need to deal with those issues aggressively.”

The recommendation to try safe injection sites, decried as “shooting galleries” by opponents, also brought criticism from police and opposition MPs.

Supervised sites, already established in some European countries, are controlled health-care settings where drug users can inject themselves using sterile equipment under the supervision of medical personnel. Proponents say it leads to rehabilitation and prevents overdose deaths.

Mr. White, vice-chairman of the committee, said there’s no evidence the sites work.

“They have been shown to be an addict magnet,” he said. “They don’t get people off the drugs. That’s why I call harm reduction harm extension.”

“Our concern is that we’re sliding down a slippery slope to the point where it won’t be long that we’ll be getting calls for dispensing drugs in those sites as well,” said David Griffin, executive officer of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

The report also recommended that Correctional Service Canada develop a three-year plan to reduce “substantially the flow of illicit drugs into prison.” In addition, it urged improved access to rehabilitation programs and methadone treatment for heroin users and setting up two pilot detoxification prisons.

Note: Cauchon suggests he’ll move next year on plans to decriminalize marijuana.


Canada’s Drug Strategy Report


Reprinted with permission from Globe and Mail