From the Chicago (Ill.) Tribune
CANADA'S PLANS TO DECRIMINALIZE the possession of small amounts of marijuana have enflamed the Bush administration's drug-enforcement team, which believes there will be a considerable impact on this side of the border. It's hard to see what all the fuss is about.
Canada does not plan to make marijuana legal. It is only trying to moderate its response to the offense of illegal possession of the drug. Simple possession of marijuana can bring warnings in some areas of Canada, but a criminal conviction and jail time in other areas. Prime Minister Jean Chretien is urging the House of Commons, which his party dominates, to update and standardize the country's pot laws to reduce penalties for small amounts of marijuana, but increase them for growers, sellers and smugglers.
The proposal would reduce penalties for possession of up to 15 grams - about 20 cigarettes - to a fine of up to $180 for youths and $290 for adults. However, maximum sentences for growers would double to 14 years. Fines for possession by intoxicated drivers would increase and the government would spend about $150 million on an anti-drug educational campaign.
Modest as these changes are, White House drug czar Vernon J. Walters warns that, as a result, the United States will be flooded with waves of Canadian-grown grass. Drug Enforcement Administration officials warn of lengthy delays at the border as customs officials try to stop the deluge.
Oh, Canada. First came disputes over the Iraq war, then SARS fears, then beef safety in light of mad cow disease. And, now, pot.
Ironically, Canada is following this country's example. Since the 1970s, 12 U.S. states (as well as some European countries) have removed criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Most of the marijuana consumed by Americans is produced by Americans, often in closets and basements far from any border patrols. Or it is smuggled in from Latin America, according to the Justice Department's latest National Drug Threat Assessment.
Seizures of Canadian marijuana at the border have increased dramatically, from 813 pounds in 1998 to more than 20,000 pounds last year. The increase is likely attributed to heightened border surveillance in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It's difficult to see how enhanced penalties for cultivation of marijuana in Canada will breed more smuggling to the U.S. For that matter, it's unlikely that reduced penalties for possession will promote that, either. Some of the biggest pot-exporting states, such as Kentucky and Tennessee, according to federal data, also have some of the toughest anti-marijuana laws.
Tougher pot laws have saddled more young people with criminal records, but have not necessarily produced a decline in marijuana traffic in this country. In an era of terrorism, mad cows and SARS, the United States need not waste its resources blowing smoke over how Canada pinches its small-time pot users. Both countries have bigger challenges to meet.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Servic