Stephen Harper says his government is looking "very carefully" at a proposal that would give the police the power to ticket – rather than charge – people who are caught with small amounts of marijuana.
The Prime Minister's remarks come amid a widening debate over Canada's marijuana laws, inspired in part by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's admission that he has smoked pot since his election as a Member of Parliament.
"I don't believe the Canadian Chiefs of Police proposed these options because they don't believe in the laws," Mr. Harper said. "On the contrary, they believe this option is a better approach in terms of enforcement of the law and the government is certainly looking at their proposal very carefully."
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police passed a resolution earlier this month that calls for changes to the federal Contraventions Act so that police can issue fines for individuals in possession of small amounts of cannabis. The proposal would not take any existing laws off the books, but would add a new ticketing power.
The chiefs argue this would neither be decriminalization nor legalization, but rather an improvement on the status quo in which police must choose between ignoring a situation or laying criminal charges. The chiefs say laying charges for pot strains police and court resources. The police also note that convictions for pot possession carry heavy consequences for individuals – including potential barriers to travel and employment – that would be avoided with tickets.
There is constant debate over the definitions of decriminalization and legalization when it comes to pot, but some have said the chiefs' proposal amounts to a form of decriminalization.
Tim Smith, a spokesperson and government relations official for the police association, said he was pleasantly surprised to hear the Prime Minister's remarks.
"I thought he was right on. He was obviously very knowledgeable. Someone had briefed him. I'd like to pretend it was us, and it wasn't," he said.
Mr. Smith said the effect of implementing the proposal would be a reduction in the number of cannabis possession cases in the criminal justice system.
"There is the fact that there's a lot of people that have been perhaps unfairly criminalized and our court systems and our police officers are being plugged up with it, and that's one of the major themes behind our proposal was just the efficiencies of the policing system and the justice system in Canada," he said.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford rejected the proposal from the police chiefs this month, calling marijuana a "gateway drug" that could lead individuals to harder drugs.
Meanwhile, Reuters reported Thursday that U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder informed the governors of Colorado and Washington that the Obama administration has decided not to sue the states over new laws that legalized recreational marijuana use.
As for the political debate in Canada, Mr. Harper launched a more forceful attack on Mr. Trudeau's recent statements. Last week, the Prime Minister had declined to comment, saying Mr. Trudeau's actions spoke for themselves. He had stronger words for his Liberal opponent Thursday.
"Obviously I think Mr. Trudeau's actions display poor judgment," he said.
Though Mr. Trudeau has said he favours legalizing marijuana as a way of keeping the substance out of the hands of children, the Prime Minister claimed the Liberal Leader is encouraging children to use marijuana.
"I look at the contrast with him promoting marijuana use for our children versus saying [Wednesday] he will have no economic policy for several years. Our priority as a government is not encouraging the spread of drugs; it is encouraging job creation," Mr. Harper said.
Mr. Trudeau addressed the issue of youth and pot during a caucus retreat this week in Georgetown, PEI.
"We're spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on a plan that is not keeping marijuana out of the hands of our teens," he said. "Instead, [we're] incarcerating and giving criminal records to hundreds of thousands of Canadians over the past few years in a way that's not useful, in any way, in keeping marijuana out of the hands of our teens."
A spokesperson for Mr. Trudeau said the Prime Minister is playing "cheap politics" and should apologize for misleading Canadians.
With a report from The Canadian Press