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Canadian Government Tries Anew to Decriminalize Marijuana

Tuesday, November 2, 2004; Page A22

OTTAWA, Nov. 1 -- Canada's Liberal Party government reintroduced legislation Monday to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, drawing criticism that this could prompt a clampdown at the U.S. border.

The bill would replace criminal sanctions with fines for small amounts, up to 15 grams or about half an ounce, with youths subject to smaller fines than adults.

Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler says he does not want young people to have criminal records because of marijuana use. (File Photo)

Vic Toews, a member of Parliament from the opposition Conservative Party, voiced fears that the legislation could end up jeopardizing the world's richest trading relationship, valued at more than $1 billion a day.

"We know that the Americans are very opposed to this bill," he told reporters in the lobby outside the House of Commons. "How does this government guarantee us that there won't be retaliatory action by the Americans?"

U.S. drug enforcement officials have warned that the relaxed laws could mean a surge in smuggling of potent Canadian marijuana -- a business already worth about $4 billion in the Pacific province of British Columbia.

Opponents in both countries have also warned that such a change could lead to longer lines at the border if the United States tightens security further.

Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said he did not want young users to have criminal records, which could hurt their job prospects and block entry into the United States.

Similar legislation was scuttled by the June federal election, which automatically killed all outstanding bills.

Canadian police had also warned that before decriminalizing the drug, authorities needed to develop reliable tests for marijuana-impaired driving.

To that end, Cotler reintroduced a separate bill Monday on drug-impaired driving, a measure that would grant police the authority to force suspects to submit to tests.

Government officials said there was no reliable machine that police can use at the roadside to determine drug impairment, but they can look for involuntary jerking of the eyes and make drivers try to stand on one leg.

If they suspect drug use, they can take the driver to a police station to conduct further physical tests and possibly to obtain blood, saliva or urine samples.

Officials also said police did not have enough training yet to administer these tests across the country, but Cotler pledged about $5.3 million for new training.

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