The provinces oppose it and so do the police. Even much of the federal Liberal caucus opposes it, yet Jean Chretien is intent on pushing through Bill C-38 to decriminalize the possession of sizable amounts of marijuana.

Introduced May 27 by Justice Minister Martin Cauchon, the bill will permit “pot” smokers to possess 15 grams of marijuana, equivalent to several marijuana cigarettes, without the risk of criminal sanction, only a small fine of $150. Younger people will receive even lower fines under the new law: just $100. That has the parliamentary opposition up in arms.

Opposition Leader Stephen Harper said the bill, “calls for fines for possession, but will actually bring in lower fines for young people. This would be like offering a discount on a pack of cigarettes with a student ID card. What kind of message does the government think it is trying to send?”

The message, apparently, is that marijuana smoking is not the societally unacceptable practice it once was. In fact, the bill will even decriminalize possession of marijuana while driving a motor vehicle. The government is also planning to mail applications for pardons to the roughly 600,000 Canadians who have criminal convictions for possessing the drug.

In an effort to appear tough on crime, the maximum sentence for operating a grow house, where marijuana is cultivated for distribution, has been doubled to 14 years under Bill C-38. However, critics suggest that move is window-dressing, as judges rarely hand out the seven-year maximum sentence currently.

Brian Rushfeldt, executive director of the Canada Family Action Coalition, believes C-38 is a foolish piece of legislation. He knows from personal experience, having previously served as an addictions counsellor in Alberta. The decriminalization agenda “will lead to increased drug use,” he told The Interim. “If users can pack 15 grams around and not get a record theyíll do it. Then they’re going to use it in a more open and frequent way.”

Rushfeldt says the most likely cohort to be using marijuana is young males, under 35 years of age. Of the narcotics addicts he treated, he says, “The high majority started with smoking pot. Then a lot moved on to harder drugs.”

According to Rushfeldt, the addictive qualities of marijuana are quite obvious. “Marijuana is addictive in that people are trying to manage their lives by substance abuse. They are managing everything from boredom and sexual abuse, to divorce and other painful experiences.”

“In a sense this works, although it carries a price. Marijuana is as destructive as any hard drug. It is mood altering, you don’t think clearly and you engage in destructive patterns of behaviour. That leads to destroyed marriages, unemployment, loss of finances and so on,” Rushfeldt said.

Calgary Alliance MP Jason Kenney told The Interim the 15-gram limit is too high. “Marijuana is now far stronger than it was when ministers Allan Rock and Martin Cauchon were smoking it in college.” He said allowing such high limits for possession will, “make it that much easier for some scumbag selling pot to school kids in Langley, B.C. to cross the border to Bellingham, Wash. and do the same there.”

Kenney worries, “This is going to lead to tightening up the border. We’re tempting fate here. The border is the lifeblood of the Canadian economy.” The U.S. accounts for 85 per cent of Canada’s export trade.

Indeed, C-38 was already delayed once in May to tighten up some sections of the bill after Justice Minister Cauchon met with U.S. Attorney-General John Ashcroft and other senior U.S. officials. They told the minister that his government was risking a major crackdown at the border if it proceeded with its decriminalization agenda. The U.S. fears the current flow of Canadian marijuana will turn into a torrent.