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U.S. Drug Czar Praises 'Positive' PM


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Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Author: Sheldon Alberts in Washington and Janice Tibbetts in Ottawa
Published: Wednesday, December 24, 2003
Copyright: 2003 The Ottawa Citizen
Contact: [email protected]

U.S. drug czar John Walters praised Prime Minister Paul Martin yesterday for vowing to overhaul federal marijuana legislation and said he hopes for an end to the "abrasiveness" that marked Canada-U.S. relations under Jean Chretien.

In a sign of the Bush administration's eagerness to improve strained relations with the federal government, Mr. Walters took the rare step of publicly congratulating Mr. Martin for announcing plans to crack down on marijuana growers and repeat users when he reintroduces the government's marijuana bill next year.

"I have been encouraged because of the statements he has made about marijuana being a serious drug," Mr. Walters said. "He has made an effort to show a recognition that he does not side with those who say this is a soft drug, or that this is something you don't have to pay attention to."

Mr. Walters' comments came as the Supreme Court of Canada refused to elevate marijuana smoking to a constitutional right yesterday in a ruling that allows Parliament to criminalize any behaviour it sees fit to protect people from harm.

"There is no free-standing constitutional right to smoke 'pot' for recreational purposes," justices Ian Binnie and recently retired Charles Gonthier wrote in the 6-3 decision.

The majority, in upholding the current law, rejected the arguments advanced by three B.C. marijuana enthusiasts, who claimed it breaches the Charter of Rights to threaten someone with a criminal record for what they contend is a victimless crime.

It was the Supreme Court's first test of the 80-year-old prohibition on cannabis possession and the majority sided with the government on every point, saying that any change in the law is up to federal politicians.

"It is open to Parliament to decriminalize or otherwise modify any aspect of the marijuana laws that it no longer considers to be good public policy," said the 82-page majority decision.

Mr. Walters, director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, became one of the Bush administration's toughest critics of Mr. Chretien after the former prime minister introduced legislation earlier this year to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

He sparked a cross-border war of words in October when he said Canadians were "ashamed" of Mr. Chretien for joking that he might try smoking marijuana after the decriminalization bill was approved by Parliament.

The U.S. had charged that Canada was the only country in the Western Hemisphere to mishandle its drug policy, and objected to Mr. Chretien's cavalier assessment of marijuana use. Mr. Chretien's attitude towards marijuana was a "source of friction" with the White House, Walters said.

Mr. Martin plans to revive marijuana legislation that died on Parliament's order paper last month, with substantial changes. Mr. Martin has said the bill will still impose fines instead of criminal conviction for simple possession, but the bill is expected to include tougher penalties for repeat offenders and marijuana growers.

That is a welcome development for U.S. drug enforcement officers, who blame lax Canadian enforcement and punishment for a proliferation of high-potency marijuana exports south of the border.

"The danger is that we still have this growth of the most dangerous forms of marijuana, higher-potency marijuana going on in Canada that threaten not only Canadians, but is largely being shipped to the U.S.," Mr. Walters said. "It compromises our abilities to foster an as-free-as-possible movement of goods and people at the border. It is obviously something that we need to work on together so the border isn't used as a shield or a hindrance."

With Mr. Martin rejecting the approach of his predecessor, "we have some real opportunities to move in a positive direction," Mr. Walters said.

The Supreme Court ruling also eases pressure on Mr. Martin to follow through on a promise last week to revive a bill that would make possession of small amounts of marijuana a ticketable offence rather than a criminal one, said Alan Young, a lawyer in the case.

"Paul Martin is sitting in a different world going into 2004," said Mr. Young, a professor at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.

"There is no pressure coming from the courts to change the law and, in fact, there's pressure coming from the Americans to preserve the law. You tell me how strong is Mr. Martin and does he have the political will. I suspect not."

Mr. Young represented Chris Clay, a 32-year-old Victoria web-page designer who owned the Great Canadian Hemporium marijuana paraphernalia and seed store in London, Ont. The other litigant was Victor Caine, who was convicted of possession for sharing a joint with a friend in his car while parked at a beach near Vancouver.

Vancouver's David-Malmo Levine, a third litigant who took his legal fight as far as the Supreme Court after police shut down his "harm reduction club" seven years ago, said the ruling "means that harmless people are not protected by our Constitution."

The Supreme Court rejected their argument that lawmakers should have to demonstrate a serious risk of harm to marijuana users to justify criminal sanctions. The government passed the test by showing that the health risks are not "insignificant or trivial," concluded the court's majority.

"Chronic users may suffer serious health problems. Vulnerable groups are at a particular risk, including adolescents with a history of poor school performance, pregnant women and persons with pre-existing conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, schizophrenia, or other drug dependencies," wrote the court, citing studies.

The trio of marijuana users also failed to convince the court that control over possession is outside federal jurisdiction because the provinces are responsible for health, that it is unfair to target marijuana when alcohol and cigarettes are legal, and that pot prohibition discriminates against people because of their "substance orientation."

The Supreme Court said it would be going too far to expand the Charter of Rights to protect people based on lifestyle choices.

"The Constitution cannot be stretched to afford protection for whatever activity an individual chooses to define as central to his or her lifestyle," the court said. "One individual chooses to smoke marijuana; another has an obsessive interest in golf; a third is addicted to gambling. A society that extends constitutional protection to any and all such lifestyles would be ungovernable."

In three separate dissenting opinions, justices Louise Arbour, Louis LeBel and Marie Deschamps said that criminalization is too harsh a penalty, given that the government did not prove a serious enough risk of harm.

"The enforcement of the law has tarred hundreds of Canadians with a criminal record," wrote Judge LeBel.

An estimated 600,000 Canadians have criminal records from marijuana possession.

Mr. Walters declined to comment on the specifics of yesterday's Supreme Court ruling.

But he dismissed claims by Canadian supporters of decriminalization that criminal convictions for marijuana possession will unfairly stigmatize youth who only experiment with the drug.

He called the argument a "lie that legalizers have created" to increase pressure on politicians to decriminalize cannabis. 

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