TORONTO Getting caught with an ounce or less of marijuana in Canada should bring fines, not prison time and a criminal record, a parliamentary committee said yesterday.
The committee was the second in Parliament that has called for Canada to ease its marijuana laws despite protests from the United States.
Canada’s Supreme Court is also preparing to hear a constitutional challenge to laws that make it illegal to possess pot, and Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said this week that legislation to decriminalize marijuana could be introduced early in 2003.
The report by a House of Commons committee on drugs said too many young Canadians get a criminal record for the relatively minor offense of smoking pot.
Rather than legalizing marijuana, as recommended by a Senate committee earlier this year, the House panel proposed a fine or other sanction instead of the maximum six-month jail term for possession.
The report also differed from the Senate committee by not calling for an amnesty for the estimated 600,000 Canadians with a criminal record for possession of cannabis.
It proposes government education and prevention programs for young people, naming a drug commissioner to report on national drug strategy, and more money each year for the Canadian Center on Substance Abuse.
American officials oppose the push toward greater leniency.
Liberalizing laws will boost drug use and bring more marijuana into the United States, said John Walters, director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Canada is already a major source of marijuana for the United States, with an estimated $2.5 billion worth smuggled in each year, Mr. Walters said yesterday.
While he didn’t think the new laws would “destroy” relations between the historically friendly neighbors, Mr. Walters said the United States would be forced to combat the increased flow of marijuana.
“My theory is, it’s going to cause unnecessary harm to our citizens and our children on both sides of our borders,” he said.
The Canadian Supreme Court will hear a constitutional challenge to marijuana laws today. The basic argument is that people should not be imprisoned for something that isn’t harmful.
Mr. Walters said marijuana is a dangerous drug and that 60 percent of drug-dependent Americans are hooked on it.
“For people who try to tell Americans marijuana is not something we have to pay attention to it’s a lie,” he said.
Last year, Canada implemented a medicinal-marijuana program that allows some patients to possess and grow pot.
Eight U.S. states have taken some kind of step toward permitting the medicinal use of marijuana. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has ruled there is no exception in federal law for people to use marijuana, so even those with tolerant state laws could face arrest if they do.