The Canadian government introduced legislation on Tuesday to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana but set stricter penalties for those apprehended for trafficking the drug.
After more than a years of internal debate on how to change marijuana laws, the form the legislation took was a compromise between those in the Cabinet who see the drug as a minor nuisance and those who fear that anything approaching legalization would increase use by young people.
The Bush administration has been vocal in cautioning Canada that Washington would be forced to increase time-consuming border searches if decriminalization of marijuana is enacted. US officials say decriminalization would increase supplies and trafficking.
Canadian officials argued on Tuesday that the legislation would modernize law enforcement approaches to a drug whose use is often overlooked by the police.
"I want to be clear from the beginning, we are not legalizing marijuana and have no plans to do so," Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said. "What we are changing is the way we prosecute certain offenses of possessions. We are introducing alternative penalties."
Under the legislation, possession of up to 15g -- about 20 cigarettes -- would be an offense punishable by a fine of up to C$180 for youths and C$290 for adults.
But maximum sentences for illicit growers would increase, and the government would spend about C$150 million on an educational campaign to convince young people not to use drugs. Fines for possession would increase for intoxicated drivers.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien has publicly come out strongly for decriminalization.
Several backbench Liberal lawmakers have spoken out against the legislation, however, complaining that the legislation does not set tough minimum sentences for growers and traffickers and sends the wrong signal to youth.
"We're removing the stigma attached to the product and sanctioning or tolerating its use as produced by major elements of organized crime throughout Canada," a Liberal member of Parliament, Dan McTeague, complained in an interview. "It is by no means a done deal as far the Parliament is concerned. This bill is going to have a difficult time."