TORONTO, April 30 (UPI) -- Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien is hoping his teenaged experience with cigarette smoking will equate to today's youth and marijuana -- grant limited permission and it will stop being attractive.
Chretien, who will step down as leader of the Liberal party and prime minister in February ,told 1,000 party faithful at a fundraising dinner in Ottawa Tuesday he intends to leave a legacy of not being "afraid to take on controversial issues."
That includes loosening marijuana laws before Parliament adjourns for the summer.
"We will soon introduce legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana," Chretien told the crowd. The applause was thunderous, and Chretien leaned to the microphone and said "Don't start to smoke it right away -- we're not legalizing it, we're decriminalizing it!"
Reminiscent of his first year as prime minister in 1993 when he referred to himself in a folksy way as "just a little guy from Shawinigan (Quebec)," he recalled his youthful experimentation with tobacco.
"I smoked cigarettes when I was a kid when my father didn't want me to smoke. When he gave me permission at 16, I stopped, "he said, adding that he has never tried marijuana.
Much of what Chretien hinted at is similar to a report issued by a Senate special committee last September, which recommended possession of 30 grams or less be treated as a fine rather than a criminal charge. The report also recommended purging criminal records of some 600,000 people charged with minor possession in the past.
The issue is actually old for Chretien, who was first elected as a member of Parliament in 1973. That year, the Le Dain royal commission urged relaxation of the marijuana statutes.
The most recent report estimates that 2 million Canadians smoke marijuana recreationally and that policing and prosecution bills run as high as $350 million annually.
Yet the divisiveness on decriminalization is apparent even within the law enforcement community. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has expressed cautious endorsement of the idea, while the Canadian Police Association is adamantly opposed.
There is also the issue of what the neighbors think -- the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center asserts that Canada is responsible for sending 800 tons of marijuana into the United States each year. This at a time when relations between the two countries are strained over Canada's refusal to participate militarily in the war in Iraq.