Minister 'quite open' to marijuana debate

By MARK MacKINNON
Globe and Mail
Saturday, May 19, 2001

Ottawa -- Justice Minister Anne McLellan said yesterday she is "quite open" to a debate on whether marijuana should be legalized, or at least decriminalized, in Canada.

Speaking one day after MPs in her own party and others said they wanted to begin such a discussion, Ms. McLellan said it is "absolutely" time for Ottawa to consider whether some illegal "soft" drugs should continue to be banned.

Her comments pushed the government closer than it has ever been to loosening the rules around possessing and using marijuana.

On Thursday, the House of Commons passed a unanimous motion to create a committee to examine the issue of non-medical drugs in Canada. Members of all five parties said they see the committee as a chance to raise the marijuana issue.

The decision moved the debate into the spotlight yesterday; both the chairman of the Canadian Alliance's antidrug caucus and advocates of legalizing marijuana promoted the idea.

"I think both my colleagues, the minister of health and I look forward to this discussion and what the committee hears from Canadians and any recommendations they may make," Ms. McLellan said in a brief interview. "We are quite open to that."

She noted that the Senate, led by Conservative Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, has been examining the issue for some time, and said she had "encouraged" him in his work.

However, Ms. McLellan also said it's clear Canadians are divided on the idea of becoming the second Western country after the Netherlands to decriminalize marijuana.

"I think it's something we need to talk to Canadians about because I think they're deeply conflicted."

Farah Mohamed, the minister's spokeswoman, said later the government feels it should take its time on this issue. The social implications need to be studied before any decision is made, she said.

"The issue of decriminalizing marijuana is a very complex one . . . even within the police there isn't clear agreement on this."

She said the government has no plans to change the law before hearing from the committee, which will have 18 months to examine the issue after it is constituted.

Yesterday, a multiparty consensus that the issue can no longer be avoided seemed to be developing.

Canadian Alliance caucus chairman Randy White, normally a staunch antidrug crusader, said even his party is willing to look at legalization or decriminalization.

"There are lots of people across this country who want to talk about it, and I'm certainly open to listening," he said.

Mr. White, however, said starting a marijuana debate was not his intention when he introduced the motion calling for the creation of the special committee on drugs.

He said he hopes the bulk of the committee's time will be spent examining ways to cut into the criminal drug trade, in which marijuana plays a large role. "There are over a thousand people a year dying in Canada from drug-related [causes]," he said. "That should be the committee's focus."

Marijuana advocates were already claiming victory yesterday. "The House committee is very encouraging," Marc Emery, president of the British Columbia's Marijuana Party, said. "The only reason we ran [in this week's B.C. election] was to get people to take notice of the issue."

Two years ago, Health Canada legalized the use and possession of marijuana for medicinal purposes after a court found the drug useful in easing the pain of terminally ill patients.

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