Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Canada's New Prime Minister Takes Tough Stance on Marijuana Laws

The New York Times

Toronto, April 3 — Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Monday that he was scrapping draft legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, a measure that had been strongly criticized by the Bush administration.

The move was not unexpected, because his Conservative Party had opposed the measure. But it was symbolically important coming on the first day that the new Parliament convened and only days after Mr. Harper's first meeting as prime minister with President Bush, at a summit meeting in Mexico.

Mr. Harper announced the move during a speech to the Canadian Professional Police Association in which he pledged to toughen sentences for drug and gun crimes, tighten parole rules, strengthen controls on child pornography and expand the national databank of DNA samples for convicted criminals.

"We are going to hold criminals to account," said Mr. Harper, who was elected in January. "If you do a serious crime, you're going to do serious time."

The former Liberal government had drafted the legislation, which would have made possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana a minor offense punishable by fines of between $100 and $400. Those found with small amounts would no longer have a criminal record.

Several American officials had warned that the legislation would force the United States to increase its inspections at the border and thereby risk creating more delays for trade and tourists. It was also viewed by American officials as a harmful symbol when the Canadian marijuana industry, which is estimated to generate as much as $8.5 billion annually, is spreading across the country and exporting widely in the United States.

The legislation was also opposed by local Canadian police departments.

The proposed law, drafted three years ago, was never brought to a vote. But it remained an irritant in relations between Canada and the United States, especially as the Canadian police have made fewer and fewer arrests for marijuana possession in recent years.

The three opposition parties are not expected to try to resuscitate the legislation, although together they control a majority in the House of Commons.

The Toronto Star reported Monday that local police officers around the metropolitan Toronto area had taken their cue from the new Harper government and had begun cracking down on possession of marijuana in recent weeks.

Mr. Harper's emphasis on reducing crime is part of a broader pattern to emphasize policies that are not likely to bring much opposition, like fighting government corruption, cutting the national sales tax and reducing waiting time for health care.

Because the opposition parties, all to the left of his Conservatives, have the power to bring down the government if they unite against him, Mr. Harper apparently is treading carefully so as not to antagonize them.

The most contentious issue in the new Parliament is child-care policy. The Conservatives prefer granting direct allowances to families with small children while the opposition prefers the establishment of a national child-care program.

By Clifford Krauss


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