OTTAWA - The same day that voters in two U.S. states approved the legalization of marijuana, the Harper government in Ottawa was bringing into force tough new mandatory penalties for pot.
The states of Washington and Colorado both voted in favour of ballot-box propositions Tuesday removing criminal penalties for the possession and sale of recreational marijuana, while a similar provision in Oregon went down to defeat.
Tuesday was also the day that drug measures in the Conservative government's omnibus Safe Streets and Communities Act, passed last spring, came into full force and effect.
Canada's new law provides a mandatory six-month jail term for growing as few as six marijuana plants, twice the mandatory minimum for luring a child to watch pornography or exposing oneself on a playground.
"Today our message is clear that if you are in the business of producing, importing or exporting of drugs, you'll now face jail time," Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said in a release Tuesday, well before the American polls closed.
By day's end, Colorado had voted to permit adults over 21 to grow up to six pot plants in private, and Washington had voted to permit state-licensed growers to sell adult individuals up to an ounce of marijuana at a time.
Nicholson was not available Wednesday to comment on the American state votes but his spokeswoman reiterated in an email that "our government does not support the decriminalization or the legalization of marijuana."
Julie Di Mambro added that "the production and trafficking of illicit drugs is one of the single most significant sources of money for gangs and organized crime in Canada."
Contrast that with Geoff Plant, a former British Columbia attorney general who supports the Stop the Violence BC coalition that's campaigning for legal changes.
"The take-away for politicians is to realize voters on both sides of the border are increasingly wanting this change, and that should make politicians both nervous about what will happen if they don't listen to voters and also less nervous about the risk associated with change," said Plant.
In Mexico City, Luis Videgaray, the main adviser to Mexico's president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto, said the Washington and Colorado votes will force the Mexican government to rethink its efforts on halting marijuana smuggling across the border.
And Sean McAllister, a former assistant attorney general in Colorado, told Britain's Guardian newspaper Wednesday that "I really think this is the beginning of the end for marijuana prohibition, not only in the U.S., but in many countries across the world, including the UK. We didn't just legalize it, we created a regulatory system."
The disconnect highlights a hemisphere-wide debate that is challenging the decades-long "war on drugs" that even the most staunch prohibitionist must concede has not succeeded in eradicating the illicit trade or use of drugs.
Eugene Oscapella, who teaches drug policy and criminology at the University of Ottawa, said one of the biggest impacts of Tuesday's state legalization votes may be on Canadian perceptions.
He noted 14 states have decriminalized pot, plus two that have now legalized.
"People have begun increasingly to realize the current system, the use of the criminal law, imports terrible, terrible collateral harms — and it doesn't stop people from using drugs," Oscapella said in an interview.
The Colorado and Washington votes, he said, help undercut one of the most powerful arguments used in Canada to kill talk of relaxing the country's pot laws — American border concerns and the implications on trade.
"It's not a pro-pot measure," Oscapella said of the stateside votes.
"This is a pro-sensible drug policy measure, looking at minimizing the harms of drugs in our society."
The federal Liberals are the only party with a legalization policy, which came after delegates to last January's party policy convention voted 77 per cent in favour of legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana for personal use.
A spokesman for the Liberal party's youth wing, David Valentin, said a policy group in B.C. is working to flesh out a fully developed proposal.
Bob Rae, the interim Liberal leader, said the Conservative government is swimming against the tide.
"Any public opinion poll I've seen shows that Canadians believe there's a profound futility in the current punitive approach of the law, that we're filling our jails with people who shouldn't be there, and that the law does not serve a practical purpose," Rae said outside the Commons.
Legalization, he said, is "a direction the country needs to take and will take over time."