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RM Issue #031012

U.S. drug czar says Canadians ashamed of PM
'A joint in other hand': Joking about trying marijuana not funny, John Walters says

Sheldon Alberts and Janice Tibbetts
CanWest News Service
Friday, October 10, 2003

John Walters, director of the U.S. National Drug Control Policy Office, said Canada is the "one place in the hemisphere where things are going the wrong [way] rapidly."

WASHINGTON - The White House's drug czar lashed out yesterday at Jean Chretien for relaxing marijuana laws and said Canadians are "ashamed" at the Prime Minister's recent jokes about smoking pot when he retires.

John Walters, director of National Drug Control Policy Office, said Mr. Chretien was being irresponsible when he said last week that he might try marijuana when he leaves office next February.

Canadians "are concerned about the behaviour of their Prime Minister, joking that he is going to use marijuana in his retirement," Mr. Walters told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"They're ashamed."

Canada is "the one place in the hemisphere where things are going the wrong [way] rapidly," he added. "It's the only country in this hemisphere that's become a major drug producer instead of reducing their drug production."

Martin Cauchon, the Justice Minister, who is shepherding the federal government's marijuana legislation through the House of Commons, responded that Mr. Walters should "look in his own backyard" before criticizing Mr. Chretien.

"There are over 10 states that have in place what we call alternative penalties, so you know, if it is not correct to move in that direction, maybe he should spend some time talking to his own states," Mr. Cauchon said.

Mr. Walters's outburst followed an effort by the Prime Minister to make light of his government's controversial decriminalization legislation.

During an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press, Mr. Chretien said he had never tested marijuana, but might once decriminalization legislation is approved by Parliament.

"I don't know what is marijuana. Perhaps I will try it when it will no longer be criminal," he said. "I will have money for my fine and a joint in the other hand."

Jim Munson, Chretien's director of communications, declined to comment on Mr. Walters's claim that Canadians are ashamed of their leader.

"I am not going to get into those kind of comments. I mean, they have their point of view, and we have our point of view," Mr. Munson said.

The Prime Minister, while joking about his own lack of personal experience with marijuana, also spoke about the need to crack down on growers and dealers of pot, Mr. Munson said.

"There was laughing, but he was very serious about where this country stood on drug pushers and on growers, and that this bill will reflect that," he said. "But it will also reflect the reality that a young person with a small amount would have a fine and not face a criminal record."

The marijuana bill was handed yesterday to a special parliamentary committee, instead of the busy Commons justice committee, which would not be able to hold public hearings on the controversial legislation until after Christmas.

Randy White, a Canadian Alliance MP on the special committee, said that members do not intend to rush the bill. The Americans will be among the witnesses who will be invited to the hearings.

"We don't need any particular approval from Americans to do this, but we have to understand that this is a touchy issue on the borders," Mr. White said during a debate on the bill in the Commons.

"We will be inviting the Americans here to talk to us and we want to see what their point of view is. There is little point in developing a process in this country when we offend everybody south of us."

The marijuana bill proposes to decriminalize possession of 15 grams or less, so that people would be fined from $100 to $400 instead of receiving criminal records. But it also seeks to strengthen penalties against marijuana grow operations.

The federal government, which is under intense pressure to toughen its bill, is seriously considering several amendments. They are:

- lowering the amount of pot that would escape criminal charges to 10 grams from the current proposal of 15;

- imposing criminal sanctions instead of fines on people who are repeatedly caught with pot;

- adding a minimum mandatory sentence for people convicted of running marijuana grow operations. The current bill proposes doubling the maximum penalties, but critics say this is useless because judges seldom impose the top sentence.

The Bush administration has been vocal in its opposition to Ottawa's plans for months.

Mr. Walters, the White House's point man in the U.S. war on drugs, delivered his blunt critique on Canada as part of a broader criticism of lax drugs policies in places like Europe.

Last month, he blasted Canada's court system for being too lax in prosecuting marijuana producers, saying "the Canadian system has developed the practice of not sentencing people to anything approaching serious time unless they commit a violent crime."

He added: "You can set up grows, you can ship drugs, you can be caught and very little happens to you."

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