- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

SWANTON, Vt. (AP) — Some of Nicole Cook’s classmates in this town less than 10 miles from the Canadian border head north on weekends because it’s legal for 18-year-olds to drink in Quebec.

And as the Canadian government debates whether to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, Nicole worries that such a move would encourage more teens to head north.

“I think it’s a massive danger because I’ve heard of so many people and I know of so many people that have gone to Canada and done that and come back and gotten in car accidents and stuff,” said Nicole, 17, a student at Missisquoi Valley Union High School.

Although marijuana possession would remain illegal under the proposed Canadian legislation, those found with 15 grams (about a half-ounce) or less would receive a citation akin to a traffic ticket. Maximum fines would range from $182 for those younger than 18 to $292 for adults.

The possession of similar amounts of marijuana in Vermont is a misdemeanor punishable on a first offense by as long as six months in jail, a $500 fine or both.

“We’re trying to discourage drug use and trying to make people more aware that it’s not OK, and then Canada is just kind of like it’s a slap on the hand and you move on,” said Nicole, who is involved in drug-prevention efforts at her school.

Marijuana use in Vermont is higher than the national average, said Marcia LaPlante of the state Health Department.

“I think regardless of what happens in Canada, we know marijuana is an issue here,” she said.

Crossing into Canada is common for those in the northern part of the state, sometimes with dire consequences. In 1998, four Vermont teenagers were killed in a car accident after partying in Quebec.

But some view the proposed legislation and the differences between Canadian and American laws as an opportunity for educating teens about the dangers of driving while impaired by drugs.

“Just because you’re not going to get a criminal record, doesn’t mean that you can drive any better for getting home,” said Susan Lloyd, a counselor at Missisquoi. “So that’s a danger with marijuana just like it is with drinking.”

Under the Canadian legislation, driving while impaired by drugs remains a criminal offense. A working group there is looking at the issue of detecting drivers suspected of drug use. Options under consideration include asking suspects to perform physical tests or give urine samples.

Helping teens make the best decisions regarding drug use will involve focusing on issues that are important regardless of whether Canada changes its law, said Beth Crane, co-coordinator of Franklin County Caring Communities, a St. Albans-based drug-prevention coalition.

“It’s really key not only to focus on the consequences of using, but the value of not using and seeking other ways to challenge boredom, to challenge stress, to challenge all of those things that teens struggle with in a rural community,” she said.

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