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Don't hold your breath
Governments won't let weed decriminalization happen in Canada anytime soon

History's tendency to repeat itself is something Canada's marijuana advocates are all too familiar with.

Over the last 30 years, three separate federal studies have looked into the issue of Canada's illegal drug trade. Among their many varied recommendations, decriminalizing the simple possession of marijuana has been a constant. With a report by the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs expected next month, it's anticipated the federal government will once again face a similar recommendation.

In a recent update on its findings, Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, chair of the special committee, said preliminary conclusions are already apparent, notably the fact that scientific evidence does not support the claim that marijuana is a "gateway drug" that opens the door to further experimentation with harder drugs. "It may be appropriate to treat it more like alcohol or tobacco than like the harder drugs," Nolin said in a recent press release.

At a cost of about $400,000, the committee is a tiny price to pay to make the federal government appear liberal. It's also small potatoes when compared to the estimated $464 million Ottawa spent on drug enforcement between 1999-2000. That contradiction is all too typical of Canada's approach to drug debates, in which liberal talk seldom translates into policy.

Such talk has also been echoed increasingly in recent years by high-profile figures of all stripes who have advocated decriminalizing small-time marijuana possession and putting more money into drug education and fighting organized crime. ("Decriminalization" is variously defined as having a fine or ticketing system replace sentences, or allowing those convicted to have no criminal record.) Proponents of that view have included the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs, which recommended decriminalizing possession to the federal government, and Julian Fantino, chief of the Toronto Police Service, who has said police forces and courts are weighed down prosecuting minor cases.

The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police's official drug policy is that it "would entertain endorsing any government initiative to decriminalize... certain offences related to the possession of small events of marijuana or other cannabis derivatives with the proviso that there be corresponding intiatives instituted by the government including a balance of prevention, education, enforcement, counselling, treatment, rehabilitation and diversion programs."
In May, 2001, current Justice Minister Anne McLellan and then-Health Minister Allan Rock said they were open to a discussion about changing laws. Federal opposition politicians have also supported change.

Listen to all that talk accumulate, and it may seem as though Canada were on the verge of following in the footsteps of much of Europe, where countries including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland have decriminalized either through changed laws or relaxed policies. Only Sweden and France are notable holdouts.

But Alan Young, a professor at Osgoode Hall and one of Canada's leading legal proponents of decriminalizing marijuana, doesn't think governments in Canada are going to change laws to allow for decriminalization. He thinks the wave of high-profile supporters of liberalization are still just making empty statements.

"I've seen these pronouncements forever," Young says. "They mean nothing." He also can't see Toronto adopting a marijuana amnesty project such as a much-watched one now going on in Britain (see "Brixton blueprint," page 12).

Dominic Cramer, president of the Toronto Hemp Company (THC) and an organizer of the Toronto portion of the annual worldwide Million Marijuana March, also thinks there's little substance to high-profile calls for decriminalizing small-time marijuana possession. He does note, however, that the reality on Toronto's streets suggests police are taking a more relaxed approach. "You have to be a real asshole to get busted for small amounts these days," he says.

"I would suggest avoiding such sweeping generalizations," responds Det. Courtland Booth of the Toronto Police Service's major drugs unit. "While we don't have people out looking specifically for small amounts, possessing marijuana is still against the law. Each case, however, is at the discretion of the arresting officer. Most possession charges stem from an arrest for some other offence and we happen to find a few joints in the process." But enforcement and justice around simple possession still has a lot to do with the luck of the draw: charges and sentencing can vary among and within police jurisdictions.

Young says that one in two officers he knows of may look the other way, and that while a federal diversion initiative exists in Canada, through which first-time suspects of minor possession can get off, in practice that depends on a completely discretionary call by a crown attorney.

There's also little evidence to suggest Canada will voluntarily go the way of Europe anytime soon. America's obsession with drug issues is likely a major reason for the Canadian government's reluctance to act on calls to decriminalize possession of soft drugs like marijuana. In June, U.S. drug czar John Walters warned that it's time to step up the war on marijuana, not to decriminalize it or move further along the road to facilitating its use for medicinal purposes.

Moreover, statistics for 1999 show that of the 50,000 Canadians charged with drug offences, cannabis accounted for almost two-thirds of the charges; half of those were for possession.

When it comes to sentencing numbers, Young says there's a statistical vacuum, and he doesn't think that's an accident.

He says there were 2,000 people a year going to jail in Canada for simple possession up until 1985, when Statistics Canada stopped keeping numbers, claiming it was due to a budget cut. "There's no way it was a budget cut," says Young, who believes that as long as no sentencing figures are being published, the federal government can say it's taken care of the decriminalization debate through more lenient sentencing.

There's also a great enthusiasm in this country for cracking down on growers, particularly "grow houses."

Take a look at what's happening on the drug prevention front in Canada, and it also doesn't fit with calls to increase funding for abuse and education, calls that are the constant refrain of those who've called for marijuana decriminalization.

Dr. Eric Single, a professor of public health at the University of Toronto and a senior policy advisor on decriminalization issues, says efforts dedicated to addiction research and prevention have fallen by the wayside due to the Canadian government's emphasis on reducing the supply of drugs rather than the demand. According to auditor-general David Brittain's report for 2001, 95 per cent of Canada's anti-drug expenditures went toward efforts aimed at reducing supply, leaving 5 per cent for studies into drug dependency and addiction prevention.

So why do police chiefs and others go on record proposing decriminalization if they don't actually want it to happen? Young says it could be due to the fashion in some conservative circles to advocate a less stringent approach to the drug. But Young is convinced that those high-profile advocates are powerful enough to have made an impact if they truly so desired. "If they wanted it to happen, it would happen," he says.

If lawmakers won't act, the country's top justices may do the work for them. Young is involved in a case scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court on October 30. It concerns Chris Clay, a former London, Ont. hemp store owner, and is a constitutional challenge that could effectively decriminalize marijuana possession. It could also have a much wider effect on Canada's vice laws, says Young, because parliament would have to have a "reasoned basis" to declare an activity harmful.

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