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Looser pot laws may be on horizon, Justice Minister hints

Article originally published on March 5, 2014 by Advocate Daily.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay says draft legislation that would loosen federal marijuana laws is under “serious consideration.”

MacKay says the Conservatives are looking at whether to allow police officers to issue a ticket to anyone caught with small amounts of pot, rather than laying criminal charges.

He says the Justice Department will look into the issue and possibly present a draft bill, although any policy shift would stop short of decriminalizing marijuana.

Toronto criminal lawyer Aaron Harnett tells that the possibility a possession offence could become ticketable indicates the federal government “has woken up to how out of step they have been on this issue.

“The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has been urging the Harper government for years to take possession of marijuana out of the Criminal Code and make it an offence under the Contraventions Act,” says Harnett. “Up to now, the Tories’ response has been to increase sentences and add new harsh mandatory minimum jail sentences for marijuana offences, like trafficking charges for growing six plants or more and sharing with only family and friends.”

The move may take the wind out of the sails of the Liberals in the next election, says Harnett of leader Justin Trudeau’s plan to bring in decriminalization legislation if elected prime minister.

“The Contraventions Act provides fines as punishment and a conviction under the Act would not constitute a criminal record in the truest sense,” says Harnett. “Law enforcement would still have certain powers to detain and investigate offenders, however the applicability of the Charter of Rights in such cases is unclear, given there is no risk of deprivation of liberty of the accused.”

Currently, under the Criminal Code, anyone convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana can be jailed for up to five years, while first-time offenders can face fines up to $1,000 or six months in jail.

Canadian police chiefs have long called for laws that would ticket people for pot possession instead of laying charges.

MacKay made the comments today following a weekend meeting with Vancouver’s police chief, who supports that approach, as well as other law enforcement officials.

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