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Canada's contemplation of loosening marijuana laws causes worry south of the border
News-Journal wire services

TORONTO -- American officials caution they may be forced to drastically slow trade across the northern U.S. border if the Canadian government relaxes its marijuana laws.

The changes being considered by Prime Minister Jean Chretien's government would make the penalty for getting caught with a joint similar to a traffic ticket.

By contrast, the zero tolerance policy of the United States makes possession of even small amounts illegal.

U.S. drug policy experts say decriminalizing marijuana in Canada will increase drug use in America and trafficking by organized crime elements on both sides of the border. Washington would respond with tighter border checks that could hinder trade crucial to the Canadian economy.

"We intend to protect our citizens. We would have no choice," said John P. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The issue joins a growing list of differences between the North American neighbors that share the world's largest trade partnership, worth more than $1 billion a day.

Despite their military ties and common democratic values, Canada has traditionally adopted more liberal social policies, in part to distinguish itself from its powerful neighbor. Examples include diplomatic ties with Cuba, a ban on capital punishment and more lenient immigration policies.

Canada already has a legal industry for hemp, cannabis cultivated with very low amounts of the chemical that produces the high sought by marijuana smokers. The U.S. government prohibits hemp production.

Last year, Canada implemented a medical marijuana program that allows some patients to possess and grow pot. The Canadian Supreme Court will hear a constitutional challenge to marijuana laws this fall, and a senate committee has called for the complete legalization of pot -- a much more radical step than decriminalization.

Despite such signals, lawyer and medical marijuana advocate Alan Young said Canadians should wait before lighting that celebratory joint.

"It's actually going to be a longer battle than you think," he told a Sept. 30 demonstration in Toronto by dozens of people seeking legal access to marijuana. "There's a lot of backward steps being taken."

Young cautioned the crowd that police had not let up against marijuana users. He cited police crackdowns in pot-rich British Columbia and other provinces, including a recent raid that shut down a Toronto club where doctor-certified patients could get marijuana.

He also said Canada has backed off from a plan to provide government-grown pot, though it allows approved patients to grow their own or designate someone to do so. He blamed the decision on American pressure.

Eight U.S. states have taken some kind of step toward permitting the medicinal use of marijuana: California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada and Colorado. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has ruled there is no exception in federal law for people to use marijuana, so even those with tolerant state laws could face arrest if they do.

Canada already is a major source of marijuana used in the United States, with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of dope with exotic names like B.C. Bud and Quebec Gold smuggled in everything from sod trucks to hockey equipment bags.

Decriminalization north of the border will create new headaches for the United States, said Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., chairman of the Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources.

"We're still finding it hard to believe this could actually happen," he said in a telephone interview, but added that if it does, tougher border security would follow.

"Probably it would be some sort of change in, at the very least, spot-checking, more aggressive checking, possibly background checking" of trucks and other vehicles crossing the border, he said. "Hopefully we could do it with not too much disruption, but there would be changes."

With pot valued on the street at about $3,000 a pound or more, increased smuggling is almost a certainty, Souder said.

"You're basically becoming the supplier," he said. "You're kind of the wholesaler and our guys are more like the retailers."

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