- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

TORONTO American officials say they may be forced to slow trade drastically across the northern border if the Canadian government relaxes its marijuana laws.

The changes being considered by Prime Minister Jean Chretien's government would make the penalty for getting caught with a joint similar to a traffic ticket.

In contrast, the zero-tolerance policy of the United States makes possession of even small amounts of the drug illegal.

U.S. drug policy officials say decriminalizing marijuana in Canada will increase drug use in America and trafficking by organized crime elements on both sides of the border. Washington would respond with tighter border checks, which could hinder trade crucial to the Canadian economy.

"We intend to protect our citizens. We would have no choice," said John P. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Decriminalization north of the border will create new headaches for the United States, said Rep. Mark Souder, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources.

"We're still finding it hard to believe this could actually happen," he said, but if it does, tougher border security would follow.

"Probably it would be some sort of change in, at the very least, spot checking, more aggressive checking, possibly background checking" of trucks and other vehicles crossing the border, he said. "Hopefully we could do it with not too much disruption, but there would be changes."

The issue joins a growing list of differences between the North American neighbors that share the world's largest trade partnership, worth more than $1 billion a day.

Despite their military ties and common democratic values, Canada traditionally has adopted more liberal social policies. Examples include diplomatic ties with Cuba, a ban on capital punishment and more lenient immigration policies.

Canada has a legal industry for hemp, marijuana cultivated with low amounts of the chemical that produces the high sought by smokers. The U.S. government prohibits hemp production.

Last year, Canada implemented a medical marijuana program that allows some patients to possess and grow pot. The Canadian Supreme Court will hear a constitutional challenge to marijuana laws this fall, and a Senate committee has called for the complete legalization of pot a much more radical step than decriminalization.

Eight U.S. states California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada and Colorado have taken some kind of action 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.

Canada is a major source of marijuana for Americans, with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of dope with names like "B.C. bud" and "Quebec gold" smuggled in sod trucks, hockey-equipment bags and other items.

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