In the land famous for its red maple leaf, there is a very real prospect of another leaf-- typically green and seven-fingered--stealing the spotlight: Canada's Parliament is preparing to decriminalize marijuana possession. But while many liberal-minded Canadians are applauding it, others fear that neighbor America may not take so kindly to the new 'pot' legislation.

Earlier this month, the House of Commons in Ottawa, Canada's capital, re- tabled the bill that would replace criminal charges for drug possession with small fines up to C$400. Users carrying less than 15 grams of marijuana would not be left with a criminal record. However, Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler emphasized in a CBC interview that the new legislation doesn't equal the invitation 'Stoners of North America, Unite'. "Marijuana use is and remains illegal," said Cotler. "What we have done here is alter penalty frameworks."

The bill was first introduced in May 2003, drafted by the previous Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien--a man who mused about lighting up a joint after he left office. Even though the bill stirred up initial controversy on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border, it was eventually supported by the Conservatives, New Democratic Party (NDP) and the opposition parties, but then died in the House because new Prime Minister Paul Martin called an election. This time around, there don't seem to be any obstacles in its path.

Canada's more right-wing politicians, though, are uncomfortably shifting in their parliamentary seats at the prospect of turning the Great White North into potheads' paradise. Conservative MP Vic Toews admitted to the CBC that he is afraid relaxing marijuana laws will antagonize the more puritan U.S. "How does this government guarantee us that there won't be retaliatory action by the Americans?" Toews asked. "So much of our trade depends on that back-and-forth exchange, and I'm very concerned that they're going ahead on this without taking into account the real impact this will have on trade."

His concerns are not totally unfounded. Paul Cellucci, U.S. Ambassador in Canada, already made it clear that a change in law would result in long line-ups at border crossings. And delays can hit trucking companies right where it hurts--in the wallet. Republican Congressman Mark Souder mirrored Cellucci's comments when he appeared on Canada's CTV Question Period. "I believe there'll be more searches at the border both coming and going from Canada, which hurts our trade," he said. "[Canadians] need to think through the consequences."

The Bush administration regards the proposed pot policy as a threat that will further increase drug trafficking and supply in the U.S., as well as boost organized crime. What it has apparently overlooked is that the new bill would actually stiffen the penalties for marijuana growers and dealers, doubling the length of prison sentences and introducing four new offenses dealing with "weed farming".

At the same time, Canadian liberals are seeking not only to ease up on the penalties for the average pot smoker, the NDP has also asked for "some provision for amnesty for the approximately 600,000 Canadians who have a criminal record for simple possession of marijuana." In the past, Canadians with a marijuana charge--often from wild college days in the swinging '60s and '70s--have been barred from entering the U.S.

Of course, the thought of an amnesty clearing Canada's 'high' society of its smoky past has drawn even more talk of tighter border security and increased delays. Also, with the marijuana debate being hot on the heels of Canada's legalization of same-sex marriages, the country is building a distinct reputation as the 'Amsterdam of North America.'

Ultimately, in the words of a morning radio show host at Ottawa-based KISS FM: "President Bush thinks [Canadians are] a bunch of pot-smoking homosexuals." Yet, many Americans seem to prefer residing among gay stoners to living in the post-election U.S.: Reuters reported that, since November 3, Canada's immigration ministry website has received six times more visits from American citizens than usual. And the relaxed marijuana laws are for some just the icing on the cake.

In our view, anti-pot laws are hypocritical (you can die from a single case of alcohol abuse, not the case with marijuana) and an invasion of an individual's rights to do what they want with their own bodies. And what exactly is it that the laws are supposed to prevent: giggling and raiding the refrigerator? For those of you immediately tempted to write, "but what about getting stoned and driving?"... there are already draconian laws against driving while under the influence.

Prohibition against alcohol failed and, in time, prohibition against pot will fail, too. Canada is just a little ahead of the curve.

Posted 11-15-2004 12:59 AM by Doug Casey