Canada and the U.S. have always been miles apart on drug policy, but moves by both governments in the last few months have illustrated more pointedly than ever before the philosophical differences between parochial statesiders and our neighbors to the north. Last week, the Canadian government proposed a law that would partially decriminalize the possession of small quantities of marijuana, ending criminal penalties for possession of less than 15 grams. (The law also toughens penalties for growing and trafficking.) Simultaneously, U.S. authorities moved to tighten security at the border, cracked down on stores that sell drug paraphernalia, got tough on cancer patients who toke, and passed a new law making it easier for federal authorities to fine or jail business owners who fail to prevent drug use on their property.

In the U.S., pot use is still a serious offense. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a nationwide drug policy reform organization, last year more than 720,000 people were arrested for pot-related offenses--some 640,000 of those for simple possession. Thanks to statewide mandatory minimums (which also apply in Seattle), the smallest punishment for misdemeanor possession (defined as having less than 40 grams of pot) is $250 and one day in jail, though the punishment can go as high as $1,000 and 90 days' incarceration. Last year, Seattle's city attorney prosecuted just 74 misdemeanor possession cases.

Generally, the state legislature has been far more lenient with drug felons, giving judges wide discretion to pick an appropriate punishment. Under new sentencing guidelines passed last year, first-time felons--those convicted of possessing more than 40 grams of pot--can get off with no punishment at all. "The legislature has really taken the lead on allowing discretion," says Roger Goodman, director of the King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project. "We're moving in the right direction."

Seattle's response to pot use is sadly similar to the rest of the country's in one respect: Racial minorities are far more likely to be targeted for marijuana arrests than are white pot smokers. Hempfest director Dominic Holden says that of the city's approximately 150 marijuana prosecutions in 2000, "35 percent were African American." Only about 9 percent of Seattle residents are black. "There is a systemic disparity in the adverse effects of drug law enforcement on minorities and the poor," Goodman says. "The disparities start on the street, in discretion by those who intervene on the street." --Erica C. Barnett

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