Government working on new pot legislation, Peter MacKay says

Justice Minister Peter MacKay told reporters on Parliament Hill Wednesday morning he has tasked the justice department "with looking at and coming forward with what could be a draft legislation" to make simple marijuana possession a ticketed offence.

Proposal means those caught with small amounts of marijuana would get ticketed, not charged

Justice Minister Peter MacKay, right, told reporters Wednesday morning he has spoken with a number of police officers who favour a ticketing system for those caught with small amounts of marijuana. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Federal laws on marijuana possession could soon get a major facelift.

The Conservative government is looking at potentially changing policy to allow police officers to issue tickets to people caught with small amounts of marijuana, rather than lay charges.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay told reporters on Parliament Hill Wednesday morning he has tasked the justice department "with looking at and coming forward with what could be a draft legislation." 

"We have not arrived on the exact mechanism in which that could be done. The prime minister has signalled an openness to this," he said.

However, MacKay is making it clear that this is not decriminalization or legalization of marijuana, but "giving police further discretion" when it comes to small amounts of pot.

"The 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 police to ticket those types of offences," he said.

MacKay said he met with Vancouver's police chief, as well as several other chiefs, who "seem to be very favourably inclined." 

"So it is under serious consideration," he said.

MacKay said marijuana charges didn't necessarily eat up a lot of court time, during his run as a Crown prosecutor.

"But, there were certainly charges laid where small amounts of marijuana were involved, which I thought could have been expedited by way of a fine, fine option."

Changed his tune

MacKay's office said only yesterday it had "nothing new to add at this point" regarding possible changes to the laws on marijuana.

Last August, Canadian police chiefs adopted a resolution calling for a ticketing system for small amounts of pot possession. 

The resolution states for simple marijuana possession of  30 grams or less, "a formal criminal charge pursuant to the [Controlled Drugs and Substances Act] would not be in the public interest" and places "a significant burden on the entire justice system." 

"A police officer’s ability to exercise discretion is an underlying principle of the Canadian justice system," the resolution reads.

"Having varying options for addressing simple possession of cannabis situations enhances a police officer’s ability to more effectively and efficiently deal with the circumstances they are confronted with on the front line."

Currently, under the Controlled Drug and Substances Act of the Criminal Code of Canada, a person found guilty of possession of small amounts of marijuana can be jailed up to five years. A first-time offender could be fined up to $1,000 or face up to six months in jail.

"As was stated previously, our government would look at the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police’s proposal to ticket small amounts of marijuana," was the response to a CBC News query.

Though the government is now considering softening up rules around marijuana possession, not long ago the Conservatives passed legislation to toughen laws on marijuana possession for the purpose of trafficking.

In 2012, the Safe Streets and Communities Act came into force and included legislating a mandatory six-month jail term for growing as few as six marijuana plants, as well as increasing minimum jail time to two years if individuals are caught trafficking near a school.

Step in right direction, NDP says

The New Democrats are in favour of decriminalization, and said this development "might be a step in the right direction."

"The reality is catching up with them," said justice critic Francoise Boivin. "It's not Joe Blow telling that to Peter MacKay or the government, it's the Association of Chiefs of Police.

"It would be intelligent in my book if the government would actually listen for real. What I'm not sure is, if they are going to do that or if it's just for the show, it's just to say, 'We are listening to our chiefs,' and we'll never see the day that they will come up with legislation to go ahead." 

Mark Mander, chief of Kentville police in Nova Scotia, is pleased with today's announcement and is looking forward to what the government comes up with. 

"If they were to do up draft legislation, then we would expect to see that piece of legislation and have a look at it and offer comment to see whether it meets the intention of our resolution," he said.

Critics not satisfied

However, some say this move doesn't go far enough.

The NORML Women's Alliance of Canada, a pro-marijuana legalization and regulation group, called it "a halfway measure."

"The problem with a decriminalization or a ticketing model is it will placate people, whether they be consumers or just the general public, it will placate people into thinking, 'Well then, problem solved,'" said Kelly Coulter. 

"Clearly it is to take a little bit of the wind out of the sails of some of the momentum that is now happening on the cannabis question."

She pointed to the U.S. states of Washington and Colorado, which have legalized the use of cannabis.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau brought the ongoing marijuana debate back to the forefront last summer when he came out in favour of legalizing pot, as well as admitting to having smoked it since being elected to the House of Commons.

The Conservatives had reacted swiftly and furiously, decrying Trudeau's "profound lack of judgment" and calling him "a poor example for all Canadians, particularly young ones."

Trudeau responded that it was "an example where we have a government that is completely offside from public opinion."

Following Wednesday's question period, Liberal House leader Dominic Leblanc told reporters in French that he welcomed MacKay's change of position from last year when he had refused to agree with Trudeau's comment that the criminal system isn't working.

In 2012, Canadian police reported laying more than 57,000 charges for pot possession. 

With files from Alison Crawford and Madeleine Blais-Morin