TORONTO (AP) - Canada proposed a new marijuana law Tuesday that would eliminate a criminal record for possession of small amounts while spending millions to spread an anti-pot message.
U.S. officials have warned the move could lead to tighter border security to prevent more Canadian-grown marijuana from entering the country.
Under the measure introduced in Parliament, getting caught with 15 grams - about half an ounce - or less of marijuana would bring a citation akin to a traffic ticket, not a criminal record.
While possession of marijuana would remain illegal, the bill is intended to prevent young people from getting saddled with a lifelong criminal record.
Those under 18 years old could face fines of up to $182 for minor possession while adults could be fined the equivalent of $292.
At the same time, the maximum sentence for illegal growers would be increased to 14 years in prison from the current seven, while trafficking would remain punishable by up to life in prison.
Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said the law includes an education, research and treatment program aimed at persuading young people against drug use. The government intends to spend $179 million on the program.
"The bottom line of this proposal is to create the most effective way to deal with the drug problem through a number of ways," Cauchon said.
Two Parliament committees have recommended easing Canadian marijuana laws, and Prime Minister Jean Chretien made the proposal a priority of his last year in office. He has said he will step down in February 2004 after more than 10 years as head of government.
Canada's Supreme Court is considering a constitutional challenge to laws that make it illegal to possess pot, and Ontario courts have declared the federal law against possession to be invalid because of legal questions.
Liberalizing laws will boost drug use and bring more pot into the United States, says 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, Walters says.
Cauchon traveled to Washington earlier this month to discuss the Canadian proposal with Attorney General John Ashcroft.
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 has traditionally adopted more liberal social policies, in part to distinguish itself from its neighbor. Examples include diplomatic ties with Cuba, a ban on capital punishment and more lenient immigration policies.
Most recently, Canada refused to join the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Iraq, saying it only would participate under U.N. auspices.
Eleven 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.
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