The Conservative government is looking at softening Canada’s marijuana laws by allowing police to write tickets for small-scale possession cases instead of laying charges.

The government was urged to do so by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police last year, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying at the time he would consider it. But Justice Minister Peter MacKay’s statement Wednesday signalled the issue is still on the government’s radar – at a time when the opposition parties are pushing decriminalization or full legalization. Washington and Colorado have legalized recreational marijuana use.

“Criminal Code offences would still be available to police, but we would look at options that would give police the ability, much like the treatment of open liquor, that would allow the police to ticket those type of offences. We have not arrived on the exact mechanism in which that could be done,” Mr. MacKay said on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, adding: “We’re examining it. It’s not decriminalization. It’s not legalization.”

One critic said the move, if implemented, could be more onerous for recreational marijuana users, as police who turn a blind eye to it now would instead start writing tickets. Mr. MacKay did not say when any changes could take effect. Enforcement of laws against marijuana possession is wildly inconsistent across the country, according to Statistics Canada data.

The opposition NDP and Liberals both support loosening marijuana laws, and welcomed the government’s trial balloon – in part, because the Conservatives have regularly attacked Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau over his support for legalizing marijuana.

“We’ve seen the feigned outrage in attacking and misrepresenting Mr. Trudeau’s position. For them now to look at loosening the rules, it absolutely is hypocritical,” Liberal justice critic Sean Casey said.

The Liberal Leader supports legalization, with marijuana sold freely and taxed, but the party hasn’t decided “how we get there, how long it takes [or] how many steps,” are required, Mr. Casey said.

The Official Opposition NDP supports decriminalization, such that the sale of marijuana isn’t fully legalized but consumers aren’t criminally prosecuted.

“What I find is lots of smoke and mirrors, I mean a lot of talk and not really anything concrete,” NDP justice critic Françoise Boivin said Wednesday. “All I see right now from this – from this government – is much more harder sentences for people with even small amounts [of marijuana].”

The Liberal government considered a similar move a decade ago, pursuing decriminalization and the option for tickets. It never succeeded.

“This is a proposal that gets floated around every once in a while,” said Alan Young, an associate professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School who studies drug law and has long pushed for looser laws. The changes under consideration are better than the status quo, he said, but aren’t that significant and could amount to a crackdown.

“The police turn a blind eye to marijuana quite often because they really don’t believe it’s a serious crime. However, if it’s simply a ticket, there’s a greater incentive … you’re just going to find police forces end up ticketing more than they charge [now],” he said.

The Conservatives have opposed legalization or decriminalization. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, currently led by Vancouver Police Chief Constable Jim Chu, called for the change last August. The group declined comment on Wednesday, but Mr. MacKay said he’d met with Chief Chu recently.

The Conservatives have also overhauled medical marijuana laws, with new rules kicking in next month making it illegal for medical marijuana users to grow the product for themselves. Those laws have run into resistance, including from Chief Chu’s department, which released a statement Wednesday saying it will only enforce the new laws “where warranted,” and is unlikely to crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries.

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Mar. 05 2014, 12:56 PM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Mar. 05 2014, 10:22 PM EST