POT-DECRIMINALIZATION BILL STALLS AGAIN
Liberals To Put Legislation On Hold Until After Election
OTTAWA -- The Liberals' contentious bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis will probably be put off until after the federal election next year.
After being stuck in legislative limbo since it was introduced by the Chretien government more than two years ago, the pot bill has finally climbed to the top of the Commons justice committee's agenda.
It's the only piece of government business left on the committee's plate, apart from a companion bill dealing with drug-impaired driving that is poised for quick approval by members.
But Ontario member of Parliament Paul Macklin, parliamentary secretary to Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, said instead of pushing ahead with the cannabis bill, the government will probably approach the opposition about moving ahead quickly with other less contentious initiatives, such as recently tabled bills on proceeds of crime and human trafficking, both of which have all-party support in principle.
"We are still committed to [decriminalization of marijuana] but it's a question of time, and achieving goals in the period of time that we have,"
explained Macklin. "We want as much of our agenda through as we can."
He suggested the pot bill, which is opposed by the Conservatives, would likely attract too many witnesses to allow the committee to study and approve it before the election that is expected to be called by Prime Minister Paul Martin in January.
Earlier this year, the prime minister promised to call an election within 30 days of receiving Justice John Gomery's final report -- which is due in December -- into the sponsorship scandal.
"I just don't know how we could likely get it through," said Macklin, who denied the Martin government is trying to distance itself from a bill that has triggered warnings from U.S. authorities of potential problems with bilateral relations and border security.
But Bloc Quebecois justice critic Richard Marceau argued the government should be able to pass the marijuana bill before the election, although he supports passing the proceeds of crime bill first.
Both the Bloc and NDP support the pot decriminalization bill in principle.
"If the political will is there on the part of the government, the will is there on our side," Marceau said. The Liberals "should have the numbers to pass it, although my sense is that it's not necessarily the most popular bill within their own caucus."
Conservative justice critic Vic Toews said his party would be pleased to see the decriminalization aspect of the bill "drift along in space for eternity."
His party will likely table amendments to the bill that would establish tough mandatory minimum jail terms for those involved in marijuana grow operations.
"I believe marijuana has to be seen in the context of an overall drug strategy," Toews said. "We can't just approach this on a piecemeal basis."
Jason Gratl, president of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, called the Liberals' apparent "lack of enthusiasm" for pushing the bill forward "quite disappointing."
Gratl said "young people are still being saddled with criminal records.
People are still going to jail. Marijuana has been prohibited for far too long already without discernible benefit, and at great cost."