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US, Canada Clash On Pot Laws

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U.S., Canada clash on pot laws

Thu May 8, 6:48 AM ET

Donna Leinwand USA TODAY

The Bush administration is hinting that it could make it more difficult for Canadian goods to get into this country if Canada's Parliament moves ahead with a proposal to drop criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The proposal, part of an effort to overhaul Canada's anti-drug policies, essentially would treat most marijuana smokers there the same as people who get misdemeanor traffic tickets. Violators would be ticketed and would have to pay a small fine, but they no longer would face jail time.

Canada's plan isn't that unusual: 12 U.S. states and most of the 15 nations in the European Union have eased penalties on first-time offenders in recent years. That's a reflection of how many governments have grown weary of pursuing individual marijuana users.

But U.S. officials, while stressing that they aren't trying to interfere in Canada's affairs, are urging Canadians to resist decriminalizing marijuana.

In a lobbying campaign that has seemed heavy-handed to some Canadians, U.S. officials have said that such a change in Canada's laws would undermine tougher anti-drug statutes in the USA, lead to more smuggling and create opportunities for organized crime. Bush administration aides note that marijuana is an increasing problem along the Canadian border, where U.S. inspectors seized more than 19,000 pounds of the leaf in 2002, compared with less than 2,000 pounds four years earlier.

In December, U.S. anti-drug czar John Walters stumped across Canada, criticizing the decriminalization plan. He told business groups in Vancouver, where police allow public pot-smoking in some areas, that they would face tighter security at the U.S. border if Canada eased its marijuana laws.

The backlash was immediate across Canada, where surveys have shown that nearly 70% of the country believes that possessing a small amount of marijuana should be punishable only by a small fine. Canadian newspapers accused the USA of being arrogant and called Walters paranoid.

For years, the USA and Canada have squabbled over border issues like longtime friends with a few habits that annoy each other. U.S. officials dislike Canada's looser immigration laws and limited regulation of prescription drugs, particularly pseudoephedrine, used to make methamphetamine.

Canadian officials complain that Colombian cocaine and Mexican heroin often enter Canada via the USA. Canadians argue that the USA should do more to curb Americans' demand for illegal drugs, because restricting the supply only increases prices.

Canada's full Parliament is likely to consider a decriminalization proposal soon.

Committees in the House of Commons and the Senate have issued reports that say police should not arrest people for smoking marijuana, adding momentum to the decriminalization effort. Early versions of the proposal say those caught with no more than 30 grams -- about an ounce -- of marijuana for personal use would be ticketed and fined an undetermined amount.

'Drug tourist' penalties

Marijuana possession in Canada now is a criminal offense that can carry jail time. Although people convicted of such an offense rarely are sent to jail, they do end up with a criminal record. In the USA, states generally prosecute marijuana-possession offenses, and sentences vary from mandatory jail time to fines. Under federal sentencing guidelines, a person conviction of possession could be sentenced to a year in jail.

Canada would keep criminal penalties for marijuana offenses that pose a significant danger to others, such as illegal trafficking, selling to minors or driving while under the influence of the drug. To prevent ''drug tourists,'' Canadian officials say they would consider special penalties for sales to non-Canadians.

Walters and other U.S. officials said they are worried that such a policy change would make marijuana more available in Canada, leading to more smuggling. They say drug gangs, sensing a more tolerant climate, probably would move their operations near the Canadian-U.S. border, and more American teens would cross the border to smoke pot.

Looser marijuana laws in Canada would make it ''probable we will have to do more restrictive things at the border,'' Walters said.

For Canadians who have been slowed by security checks imposed by the USA since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that would mean more delays in crossing the border, he said. That could damage Canadian business; trade with the USA accounts for 70% of Canada's exports.

Canadian Sen. Pierre-Claude Nolin, head of the panel that released the Senate report and a supporter of eased penalties, doubts that a new marijuana policy in Canada would lead U.S. officials to hinder trade.

Walters ''should have respect for our courts and our public,'' Nolin says. ''He cannot stop 8,000 semitrailers at the Windsor (Detroit) border every day. He's saying that, but he will not do that.''

Marijuana use in the USA has risen during the past decade. A 2001 study by U.S. government and university researchers indicated that 49% of high school seniors had smoked pot, up from 32.6% in 1992.

In Canada, authorities say their studies indicate that about 30% of Canadians ages 12 to 64 have used marijuana at least once. Although drug use generally is presumed to be rising, Canadian officials say they do not have accurate data they could use to plot a trend.

Canadians say America's rising demand for marijuana makes smuggling appealing to criminal organizations. They also cite the dozen U.S. states that have cut penalties for marijuana possession in recent years -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon -- and say the U.S. government should focus more attention on them.

''It is up to each country to get its own house in order before criticizing its neighbor,'' a Canadian Senate report said. In the USA, state and local prosecutors handle most marijuana cases. Federal prosecutors usually handle cases that involve large amounts of the leaf or that involve suspects who cross state or national borders.

Asa Hutchinson, a former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who now is a top official at the Department of Homeland Security, said last year that ''we have to accept responsibility, and we're trying to reduce demand. But without being critical of Canada, we're simply stating a reality: The decision of the Canadian government will have a consequence in this country.''

More from Mexico

U.S. Customs agents say the amount of marijuana entering the USA from Canada is dwarfed by that from Mexico. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police says 800 tons of marijuana circulates in Canada each year. It's grown mostly in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec -- all of which border the USA. Canadian and U.S. officials say they do not know how much Canadian pot reaches the USA.

''B.C. Bud,'' the potent, hydroponically grown marijuana from British Columbia, and its eastern counterpart, ''Quebec Gold,'' sell for as much as $4,500 a pound, the DEA says.

If Canada decriminalizes marijuana, U.S. Customs officials expect to see more marijuana coming over the northern border, Customs spokesman Dean Boyd says. ''It doesn't take a rocket scientist to come to that conclusion.''

Canadian Justice Minister Martin Cauchon, who soon will present the government's plan for decriminalization, says he wants to bring Canadian law in line with public opinion and with judicial rulings favoring lighter penalties for marijuana possession. ''We're not talking about being weak. We want to have tougher law enforcement. Our policy toward trafficking will remain the same.''

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