TORONTO, April 30 (UPI) -- It was a singular rather than a joint statement Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien made, and he certainly has raised hopes for the nation's estimated 2 million marijuana smokers.
Chretien, who will step down as leader of the Liberal party and prime minister in February, told 1,000 party faithful at a fund-raising 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 of marijuana be treated as a misdemeanor punishable by a fine rather than a felony 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 (CAD$500 million) annually.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Canadian Police Association have issued a joint statement expressing "conditional support" for the idea. Toronto Deputy Chief Mike Boyd is the chair of the CACP Drug Abuse committee. He told United Press International: "We support alternative justice measures, but it's a conditional support for the government implementing an appropriately funded, meaningful and graduated consequences national strategy."
Boyd says under any new legislation police should have "some discretion or consideration in how they deal with possession of cannabis," suggesting a young first-time offender might only be ticketed, while someone with the same amount on a school ground would be charged.
The Canadian Medical Association has a similar position. Its president, Dr. Dana Hanson, told UPI the CMA has three criteria for endorsement:
"First, we agree with decriminalization of small amounts.
"Second, marijuana must never be completely legalized, and
"Third there must be a national strategy of prevention and addiction treatment."
"A criminal record has a negative health impact," he said.
There is also the issue of what the neighbors think. The U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center has said Canada is responsible for sending 800 tons of marijuana into the United States each year. This could aggravate relations between the two countries which are already strained over Canada's refusal to participate militarily in the war in Iraq.
It's certain Chretien will get his wish of leaving a legacy when he steps down next year. But it could well be one to give his successor nightmares.