Canada Poised to Ease Pot Laws ; on Monday, Prime Minister Chretien Signaled He May Decriminalize Possession of Marijuana

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On the heels of a Canadian Senate report recommending the full legalization of marijuana, Prime Minister Jean Chretien signaled Monday that he may ease Canada's cannabis laws.

In the annual Speech from the Throne, Canada's federal policy document (akin to the US State of the Union address), the Chretien government said it may move toward decriminalization. Legalization would not be possible because of Canada's existing international agreements that prohibit it, the government said.

Should Canada decriminalize the possession of marijuana, which observers say is likely, it will continue a trend by Western countries. In the past year, Britain, Portugal, and Italy have all relaxed their marijuana laws, to go along with several other European countries that already have more liberal policies. At the federal level, the US is becoming increasingly isolated among its Western peers.

The Bush administration maintains that a zero-tolerance policy is the only effective way to reduce addiction and trade.

"There is a widening drug-policy gap between the US and the rest of the industrialized world," says Ethan Nedelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, a liberal foundation dedicated to reforming US drug policy. Mr. Nedelmann points out that Canada repealed its alcohol prohibition laws before the US did, it was first country to introduce free needles to intravenous drug users, and the first to permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 2001.

The Canadian Senate's Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, charged with recommending a course of action for Canada's drug policy, spent a year and a half meeting with citizens, interviewing foreign and domestic experts, and looking at dozens of studies on the use and effects of marijuana. The committee's 600-plus page report, released last month, recommends that Canada allow pot-smoking for adults and clearing the records of those convicted of possession.

The Senate committee suggests decriminalization of marijuana as a first step. Under this regime, someone found with pot would receive a warning under the civil code - like a traffic ticket - instead of facing criminal charges. Britain is introducing similar measures that are expected to become law next year.

Some 600,000 Canadians have criminal records for marijuana possession, and about 1.5 million people, or 5 percent of the population, smoke pot recreationally, according to the Canadian Medical Association.

"Drug-prohibition laws in Canada and elsewhere have failed to deter users," says Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, who chaired the Senate committee. Canada made pot illegal in 1923 and currently spends about C$2 billion (US $1.3 billion) a year in marijuana- related police and prosecution costs.

"Current drug laws are a funding device for organized crime," argues Fred McMahon, director of the social affairs center for the Fraser Institute, a free-market think tank based in Vancouver. Fraser released a report last year that buttressed the case for softer penalties. …