Would Softer Pot Law Stir Wrath of U.S.?

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Jul 14, 2002.

  1. By Erin Anderssen
    Source: Globe and Mail

    In the pot-perfumed haze of an Amsterdam coffee house, MP Randy White, crime critic for the Canadian Alliance, hauled out his business card and sat down to chat with two toking patrons.
    Chat, it should be pointed out, is all he did. Mr. White says he's never touched the stuff, and there, in the city famous for putting the finest varieties on government-sanctioned menus, he claims he wasn't even tempted.

    This was business; last month, Mr. White and the other members of the House of Commons committee studying Canada's drug policy -- whose report is due this winter -- took to the road, and naturally stopped off in Amsterdam. The first evening, Mr. White went exploring.

    Committee members like Mr. White have been taking a close look at the issue, talking to people who would be most affected by any change in legislation.

    The two customers in the Amsterdam cafe -- a local and his British friend who'd crossed the channel to "smoke himself silly" -- were more than willing to explore their pot habits, while hauling away on their joints. "We're going to smoke it forever," they told Mr. White. "It's no worse than someone on booze."

    Mr. White later recalled: "We had a great discussion, a few laughs. It was a nice place. It didn't even smell as much as I thought."

    Two weeks earlier, on Washington's Capitol Hill and in far less mellow conversation, the committee had heard a different view. The man sitting across the table on that June day was Republican Congressman Mark Souder, chairman of the U.S. equivalent of the Commons committee on drug policy, and the originator of a law that bans student loans for Americans convicted of pot possession. He knew all about Canada pondering the decriminalization of marijuana, and he wasn't happy about it.

    Sources told Canadian Press yesterday that Justice Minister Martin Cauchon may be considering relaxing Canada's marijuana laws to make possession punishable by a fine instead of a prison sentence, without going as far as legalizing the drug.

    Mr. Souder's message was clear, committee members say: Proceed and we'll crack down even more on your borders. B.C. bud, he pronounced, is as dangerous as cocaine.

    "I thought, 'My God, what is this man talking about?'" said Vancouver MP Libby Davies, a New Democrat. "We can't be subservient to the ridiculous rhetoric coming out of the United States."

    In the debate over Canada's marijuana laws, however, the United States looms large, the consequence of an open border with the most rabid drug warrior in the world. Politicians can discuss the bad science of marijuana laws, and the poor cost-benefit ratio of busting people for simple pot possession. But they always manage to come back to our overbearing neighbours and how huffy they'd get if Canada even followed Britain's decision this week to make warnings the standard penalty for getting caught with a joint. It works, some observers suggest, as a convenient excuse for doing nothing. The question is: What would the ensuing temper tantrum cost us?

    Not all that much, suggests Ethan Nadelmann, executive director at the Drug Policy Alliance, a U.S. organization which favours decriminalization of drugs. He argues that trade with Canada is too important and a relatively minor move like decriminalization will generate little bluster from the White House.

    "Not that some people in the United States won't yell," he said. "But there's going to be a lot of people who don't want to see the drug war screw about with multi-billion-dollar business interests."

    Other drug-policy observers are less certain. "This would be another nail in the coffin," predicts Clayton Mosher, a Canadian teaching at Washington State University, who sees decriminalization tightening the border beyond the level prompted by Sept. 11. "I don't see it as an idle threat. There would be quite a reaction. There's already a perception that B.C. is one big marijuana farm."

    The view of Canada as a pot-smoking, pot-supplying nation is pervasive in the U.S. news media. When Ottawa started handing out permission slips for medical marijuana, the newspapers reported it as a sign of a soft-drug stance. Great fuss is generated over the high quality of the renowned B.C. bud. Although the numbers aren't supported, the U.S. has suggested that as much as half of the pot grown in Canada goes south.

    At the same time, though, experts insist, our national drug policy continues to imitate the U.S. approach. Despite claims of a de facto decriminalization, in 1999 -- the most recent year for which statistics are available -- more than 21,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in Canada. That number amounts to nearly half of all the drug charges laid in the country. A costly exercise, critics say, which ends up discharging 25 per cent and saddling the rest with criminal records.

    Canada was ahead of the United States in making pot illegal. Emily Murphy led the charge in 1923 with declarations that referred to marijuana users as "raving maniacs" liable to kill with "savage cruelty." In 1937, the year Canada recorded its first arrest, the United States passed its own law.

    The war on drugs, nonetheless, is a U.S. fight, and government officials have not been shy about applying pressure to keep Canada and other nations on track, says Ottawa lawyer Eugene Oscapella, one of the founders of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy. In 1999, the United States considered (and then retreated from) the idea of adding Canada to its illicit-drug blacklist for being too soft. In its drug literature, the U.S. State Department has criticized the Supreme Court of Canada for restricting undercover operations.

    Australian officials reported that in l996 the United States had suggested to Australia that if the country went ahead with plans to provide heroin as a last resort to addicts, it might put at risk UN permission for its opium poppy industry in Tasmania, where a healthy business is carried on supplying pharmaceutical companies. Australia eventually abandoned its heroin plans.

    The current U.S. drug czar, John Walters, says officially that Canada is a "sovereign" country, free to make its own laws. On a visit last month to Quebec city, he cited the U.S. government position that pot is addictive and leads to harder drugs -- a position many researchers say cannot be supported -- and made a forceful statement that this is the time to target pot, not decriminalize it.

    "Ultimately, the big dilemma is not knowing what goes on behind closed doors," Mr. Oscapella said.

    If Canada moves toward decriminalization, Mr. Oscapella said, the main problem for the U.S. government may be stemming the support for a similar initiative from its own citizens.

    Note: The neighbours are likely to yell, but not everybody thinks that's the end of the world.

    Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
    Author: Erin Anderssen
    Published: Saturday, July 13, 2002 – Print Edition, Page A5
    Copyright: 2002 The Globe and Mail Company
    Contact: letters@globeandmail.ca
    Website: http://www.globeandmail.ca/

    Related Articles & Web Sites:

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