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Canada to press ahead with pot decriminalization
( 2003-12-19 11:21) (Agencies)

Canada's new prime minister said on Thursday he would press ahead with plans to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, an idea opposed by both the United States and Canadian police.

Paul Martin, who has made improving relations with Washington one of his main priorities, said he did not think that young people caught with small amounts of pot should have a criminal record.

Earlier this year Ottawa unveiled a draft law that proposed slapping fines on those possessing small amounts of the drug. Officials estimate 100,000 of the country's 31 million people use pot daily and say 20,000 are convicted each year for using marijuana.

The draft legislation died when Parliament was shut down in November ahead of the handover from Prime Minister Jean Chretien to Martin.

Asked whether the government would reintroduce the law into Parliament, Martin told reporters: "Yes, we're going to". Parliament is due to reopen in early February.

The original draft wanted to eliminate criminal penalties for possession of up to 15 grams, or about half an ounce, of marijuana. Some legislators want Martin to cut this to 10 grams.

"I think one has to take a look at the fines ... and the quantities and I think there has to be a larger effort against the grow-ops and those who distribute," Martin said.

Some U.S. officials say a relaxed Canadian marijuana law could force a clampdown at the border, jeopardizing the Canada-U.S. trade relationship -- the world's largest.

"Certainly, from a health point of view, doctors will all tell you that it (using pot) is not the best thing," Martin said. "But it's of no use to anyone to give a criminal record to a young person who is caught with small quantities."

Canadian police say they worry about the law, in particular how to deal with drivers found high on pot. In August, Toronto's police chief accused judges of handing down "totally and absolutely inadequate" sentences on major pot growers.

Washington says Canadian laws are already too soft on traffickers and insists marijuana shipments to the United States -- worth billions a year -- are booming.

But Ottawa says Washington's own data shows that of all the illegal pot seized by U.S. agents, only 1.5 percent came from Canada. It also points out that at least 10 U.S. states already have similar laws on pot possession.

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