Tuesday 29 May 2001
Joan Bryden and Tim Naumetz
The Ottawa Citizen
Prime Minister Jean Chretien has ruled out the decriminalization of marijuana.
Mr. Chretien told reporters yesterday he supports the federal policy of legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. But he gave a blunt, succinct answer when asked whether his government intends to go any farther: "No."
He later said he welcomes renewed public debate on the issue, but suggested that will not change his mind.
"We've made a move on the question of using marijuana for health and the minister of health has done it."
"Should we go into decriminalization and so on?" Mr. Chretien said. "It's not part of the agenda at this time. But there is a public debate. That's all right."
Mr. Chretien shrugged off suggestions that the push for decriminalization has gained unprecedented momentum, noting that the issue has been debated for 30 years.
The prime minister's rejection of decriminalization comes only two weeks after all five federal parties agreed to strike a special committee to examine Canada's drug laws. The creation of the committee has reignited debate over the possibility of removing possession of marijuana as an offence under the Criminal Code.
Meanwhile, the main lobby group for frontline police officers criticized MPs, senators, other opinion leaders and Mr. Chretien yesterday for sending the wrong message about illegal drug use to young Canadians.
The Canadian Police Association said talk about decriminalizing or even legalizing marijuana is masking the harmful effect of the drug and minimizing its cost to society. Such talk has also made it more difficult to enforce the law, the association told a Senate committee investigating drug use in Canada.
"Perceived tolerance of drug consumption by community leaders, including members of Parliament, senators, editorial writers and even some chiefs of police, have all contributed to the elevation of thresholds for drug investigation, arrest, prosecution, conviction and sentencing," the association said.
The lobby group's executive officer, David Griffin, called on Mr. Chretien to make a clear statement about the harm of drug use to young people.
"I certainly think it would be helpful if the prime minister and others were to come out with a statement that said that drug use is dangerous," Mr. Griffin said after he and two police officers from Western Canada urged the committee to come out with a clear declaration against marijuana decriminalization.
And as the police association testified, Canadian Alliance MP Keith Martin unveiled a private members' bill that would take marijuana possession out of the Criminal Code and make it a statute offence with fines up to $1,000.
Late last year, a Senate committee was charged with undertaking a two-year study of Canada's drug laws and has since heard primarily from groups that favour decriminalization of marijuana. Conservative Senator Pierre-Claude Nolin, who chairs the Senate inquiry into drug use, has already stated he supports decriminalizing marijuana, the position favoured by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the RCMP and Conservative leader Joe Clark.
The Canadian Medical Association Journal has similarly called on the government to decriminalize possession of small amounts. A recent journal editorial argued that there are "minimal" health risks in smoking marijuana in moderation.
The rank-and-file police association, however, described marijuana as a "powerful" drug whose use brings adverse consequences such as respiratory damage, declining physical co-ordination, loss of memory and cognition, and harmful psychiatric effects, as well as health dangers during pregnancy and post-natal development.
"Marijuana use is associated with poor work and school performance, and learning problems for younger users," the association said, adding marijuana is internationally recognized as the "gateway drug" that leads to the use of stronger and more harmful drugs.
Edmonton police Det.
Glen Hayden told the committee he believes it is a myth that crime would
decline with marijuana legalization, arguing even if drug prices drop,
users will still steal to get money for their substance abuse.