Momentum Growing for Pot Law Reform
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Published: Monday, January 06, 2003
Copyright: 2003 Vancouver Sun
Contact: [email protected]
Few excuses left for politicians to cling to the status quo.
It's tough for governments to show moral leadership on an issue when the public is divided about it. On contentious matters such as gay rights, abortion and free speech, they have often simply let the courts lead the way.
Then they can argue that they're only protecting civil liberties because they have to -- the judge made them do it.
As such, federal Justice Minister Martin Cauchon is likely celebrating an Ontario court ruling Thursday that Canada's law against marijuana possession is invalid, even though the federal government is appealing it.
Windsor Judge Douglas Phillips ruled that the federal government had failed to comply with the terms of a 2000 Ontario Court of Appeal ruling, which gave the federal government a year to change the marijuana possession law to allow for the medical use of marijuana.
The day before the year was up, the feds dealt with the matter only through new regulations rather than pass a new law, which would have involved parliamentary debate.
Not enough, said Judge Phillips, in throwing out a possession charge against a 16-year-old caught with five grams of pot.
The federal stalling does make one wonder if it was simply ineptness that led to this week's development, or if the government actually hoped to create a circumstance where possession laws would again be struck down.
Unfortunately, the federal government's record on marijuana suggests the chaos theory as the likely explanation.
For years, the feds have been hopelessly confused about the matter. It's as if all those cabinet ministers who tried marijuana once in their youth -- just the one time, you understand -- have been sneaking down into the basement to do up-to-the-minute research on the drug's stupefying effects.
Not that we can deprive Mr. Cauchon of all credit on the decriminalization front. He has already said he hopes to decriminalize possession of less than 30 grams for personal use through new legislation this spring.
However, at one point he justified the decriminalization argument by saying it would allow more people to be punished for possession -- with misdemeanor fines, because police are so reluctant to inflict criminal records on pot smokers.
If that's what he feels he must do to justify progress on marijuana decriminalization, first recommended to the federal government 34 years ago by the Le Dain commission, we understand. Progress is an incremental thing.
Decriminalization, of course, won't do much to address one evil linked to marijuana -- that organized criminals profit from its distribution. But it would at least address another -- the flawed application of an outdated law.
It's a law that has inflicted criminal records on 600,000 Canadians. It still results in about 30,000 charges a year, and it still results in jail sentences. And its uneven application creates a situation where many people -- young and old, pot users or not -- have a diminished respect for our justice system.
Yet many leading political figures cling to the status quo. Saskatchewan Justice Minister Chris Axworthy wants to take a poll to see what the public really thinks. Ontario Attorney-General David Young is "flabbergasted" that the federal government wants to decriminalize marijuana right now. Premiers Ernie Eves and Gordon Campbell also question the timing. Prime Minister Jean Chretien is equivocal.
The excuses are many. We don't want to irritate the United States (even though many states have already decriminalized possession.) We don't want to send the wrong message to our children (even though we're drawing justice into disrepute with current practice.) We don't want to upset public opinion (even though polls show more of us favour decriminalization than oppose it.)
Fortunately, when politicians get together away from the media's glare, and take time to develop considered, collective proposals based on the evidence, common sense can emerge. Last fall, a Senate committee recommended legalization of pot, while a House committee called for decriminalization of possession of small amounts.
Although the federal government's signals are still mixed, the momentum for reform is becoming increasingly hard to ignore. And last week's Ontario court ruling may be the thing that removes pot smoking from the realm of criminal activity.
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