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Ottawa Citizen

April 28, 1999

McGuinty, Hampton admit to past marijuana use: Liberal, NDP leaders urge decriminalization

By: Natalie Armstrong

TORONTO -- Both Ontario's opposition leaders admitted yesterday to smoking marijuana in the past, and urged that possession of the drug be decriminalized.

The admissions from Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty and NDP Leader Howard Hampton came immediately after Premier Mike Harris vowed that his Progressive Conservative government's zero-tolerance policy on crime will continue to include the drug.

Mr. McGuinty, who says he experimented with marijuana as a teen, and Mr. Hampton, who says he tried it in university, want possession of marijuana handled outside the Criminal Code.

Mr. Harris, who is expected to call an election within weeks, says he ``found booze a little more attractive'' than marijuana as a youth and does not condone drug use today.

Asked whether he had ever inhaled, Mr. Harris, 54, replied: ``No, I haven't. But I grew up in an age where we tried all these things. I found booze a little more attractive to me.''

Asked how he would feel if his 14-year-old son, Michael Jr., was caught with marijuana, Mr. Harris replied: ``I would feel that he had broke the law and would have to suffer the consequences.''

At a news conference staged to focus on crime prevention, Mr. Harris said that ``we shouldn't be making it easier for our children to get drugs, but we should be, in fact, making it harder.''

Decriminalizing possession of even small amounts of marijuana would be ``sending our kids the wrong message,'' added Mr. Harris.

Mr. Harris raised the issue of marijuana use when he disagreed publicly yesterday with the Association of Canadian Police Chiefs, who want the federal government to legalize simple possession of marijuana and hashish.

``Normally, I agree with the chiefs of police but on this one I feel they are throwing in the towel,'' said Mr. Harris.

The premier said he understands their frustrations with the justice system.

Later, Mr. McGuinty, who is 43, said he tried marijuana ``in my late teens ... twice.'' He said he doesn't condone drug use of any kind when it comes to his own teenage children.

``They should not be doing any drugs of any kind at any time. And I don't want them smoking, either.''

The fact is marijuana users are from all kinds of socioeconomic conditions across the province, said Mr. McGuinty.

``It is simply too heavy a penalty to saddle young people with a criminal record,'' said Mr. McGuinty, adding they have trouble getting jobs later on.

The current penalties for possession just aren't working, he said.

``We should be looking at a fine, or some alternative-sentencing mechanism, which I think is supported by most Ontarians,'' said Mr. McGuinty, adding the province should be devoting more resources to crack down on traffickers who prey on Ontario's children.

``A criminal record is too great a sanction,'' said Mr. McGuinty.

Mr. Hampton, who is 46, said New Democrats believe simple possession should not be illegal because criminalizing it doesn't change behaviours and has proven to be a very expensive and ineffective approach.

Mr. Hampton admitted that he smoked the drug ``way back in university.''

``I think I was like most people who went to university in the late '60s and '70s -- marijuana was something that virtually everyone tried,'' said Mr. Hampton. ``Speaking personally, it wasn't worthwhile for me. I didn't enjoy the experience of not being in full control of my faculties.''

Mr. Harris said there's a very clear difference between himself and his opponents -- Mr. McGuinty in particular -- who Mr. Harris said was ``out of touch with reality.''

``He (Mr. McGuinty) makes excuses for those who break the law, he says they're not really to blame, he blames poverty or he blames despair or he blames society at large, not the offender,'' said Mr. Harris, adding his government will spend money to beef up the justice system.

``We're prepared to spend the dollars and to beef up the justice system,'' Mr. Harris said. ``All Ontarians must accept responsibility for their actions.''

Yesterday, a private members bill was introduced by Reform MP Keith Martin from B.C. in the House of Commons to decriminalize marijuana in an attempt to free valuable police resources and backlogged courts so they can deal with more serious criminal cases.

Police and the courts would be better able to pursue the real criminals such as rapists, murderers, and armed robbers, Mr. Martin said in a news release late yesterday.

``This is not a case of legalizing marijuana ... it is a case of crime prevention,'' said Mr. Martin in the release, adding guilty individuals could be ticketed and made to pay a fine. That money would go to drug education and counselling for substance abuse.

Updated: 24 Jul 2001 | Accessed: 13182 times