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Canada to decriminalize Marijuana

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U.S. Officials Worry Canadian Plan to Decriminalize Marijuana May Disrupt Border Traffic


U.S. officials, already concerned about illegal drugs coming across the Canadian border, are warning that a Canadian plan to decriminalize marijuana use could lead to more inspections and long border delays.

"We don't want the northern border to be a trafficking route for drugs," said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security for the Department of Homeland Security.

Hutchinson and other U.S. officials say the Canadian proposal is especially troublesome, considering how drug seizures along the vast northern border soared following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in part because of heightened security. The amount of marijuana seized from Canada quadrupled in the year after the attacks.

Seizures have subsided slightly since, but remain well above historic levels.

If Canada approves a plan to decriminalize marijuana for personal use, U.S. officials fear drug smuggling could spike, further burdening the justice system and hindering trade. More vehicles may be stopped and searched at checkpoints along the 4,000-mile border, slowing movement of the $1 billion worth of goods traded between the two countries each day.

"If the perception is that it's easier to get marijuana in, then some border officials' antennas will be up," said Paul Cellucci, U.S. ambassador to Canada.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien's administration introduced legislation in late May that would essentially make the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana equivalent to a traffic ticket. The bill would boost penalties for growing and trafficking marijuana.

The Canadian proposal "is amazing to us," said Dave McEachran, prosecuting attorney in Whatcom County, along the Washington state border. McEachran's office prosecutes hundreds of federal drug cases a year resulting from arrests at the Blaine, Wash., border the busiest crossing west of Detroit.

Canada has long had tolerant drug policing. British Columbia alone is home to a $4 billion industry in marijuana that is more potent than Mexican marijuana. Problems with smuggling over the U.S. border have existed for years.

Canadian officials call U.S. concerns understandable, but say the two nations have a long history of cooperation.

That cooperation is especially close on law enforcement, said Paul Kennedy, senior assistant deputy solicitor general for Canada. There's smuggling going both ways, Kennedy noted. While marijuana enters the U.S., cocaine and guns tend to travel north.

While the decriminalization plan has set off alarms, the flow of marijuana from Canada pales in comparison to the amount grown in the United States or imported from other countries such as Mexico and Colombia. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2002, some 20,213 pounds of marijuana was seized along the northern border, compared with more than 1.2 million pounds along the southwest border, Customs figures show.

"There's a lot of talk about B.C. bud, but we are just a small part" of the U.S. drug trade, Kennedy said.

On the Net:

Bureau of Customs and Border Protection:

further more on the topic. If the debate comes into effect, expect to see packs of marijuana sold next to cigarette packs at your local 7-11.

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