Justice Minister Martin Cauchon says he has not consulted his American counterparts on his plans to relax Canada’s marijuana laws—prompting a warning from a White House official that sidelining the U.S. could become another irritant in relations between the federal government and Washington.
Failure to talk to the Americans about pending marijuana laws is akin to Canada unilaterally setting up “open-air toxic waste sites"along the border, said Tom Riley, public affairs director for the White House office of drug control policy.
“I think there is a bit of an analog here,” said Mr. Riley, repeating U.S. drug czar John Walters’ assertion that eased drug laws will trigger tighter security checks for Canadians who cross the border.
Mr. Cauchon intends to introduce legislation late this spring to decriminalize possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana, the equivalent of about 25 cigarettes. People caught with small amounts would be punished with a fine rather than a criminal record.
Decriminalization will be yet another sore point in already fragile Canada-U.S. relations, predicted Chris Sands, a Canadian expert with the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington.
“I know that Canadian politicians think this shouldn’t be turned into such a big deal, but there is no room for persuasion down here and I think it’s going to be very damaging if Canada chooses to go ahead.
“My guess is they’ll decriminalize, start paying the price and then consult, which is the worst way to do things. It is better to consult before than after a tragedy.”
Mr. Cauchon said that he has not talked to the Americans about his plans, nor would he confirm whether they would be among the stakeholders who will be asked for input after he tables his bill.
“We haven’t talked to the Americans so far,” he said. “We may be talking to the Americans after we have made up our mind as regard to the policy. My primary goal here—I’m minister of justice for Canada—is to make sure we are going to have a good policy here in Canada, for Canadians.”
But he said he wants to send a message to the U.S. that marijuana will still be illegal in Canada and that police will be instructed to be vigilant in enforcing the law.
Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Mr. Cauchon, said there have been lower-level consultations among bureaucrats in the U.S. and Canada, but he would give no further details. He added that Canada should be free to make its own laws and does not intend to back down to satisfy the U.S.
While Mr. Sands agreed that the U.S. should not be able to dictate Canadian law, he said that high-level consultations would be useful so that Canadian politicians could get a better picture of how “uptight” the U.S. is about softening drug laws.
“I know most Canadians think of it has a happy, happy, hippie, free-love issue, but it’s really an indictment against Canadian law enforcement that is going to be hard to shake if you go forward with it,” Mr. Sands said.
“Any consultation that helps drill that in with Canadian government officials is helpful.”
The U.S. is particularly concerned because of the growing presence of potent B.C. bud, which landed Canada for the first time this year on a list of drug countries that U.S. President George W. Bush sent to Congress in January.
“I think a lot of eyebrows were raised about Canada being on a list with Columbia and Guatemala and Mexico and Haiti and countries like that,” said Mr. Riley.
Mr. Sands had grim predictions for how U.S. law enforcement officials will treat Canadians after Canada softens its drug laws.
“What I think will probably start happening is they’ll demand a list of everybody who is not arrested for marijuana possession but is found in possession of marijuana by the cops and they’ll want to have that as part of the record when your passport is scanned,” he said.
“There will be another whole category of Canadians who have diminished access to the United States.”