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
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points out that Canada repealed its alcohol prohibition laws before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
"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. …