OTTAWA - NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair is accusing the Conservatives of politicizing the debate on marijuana, saying his party believes the use of weed is a personal choice while recalling his own years as a young student puffing on "oregano."
Mulcair stopped short, however, of echoing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's call for the legalization of marijuana, saying there are still issues that need to be examined before that happens.
"The NDP for 40 years has believed that it makes no sense at all for a person to have a criminal record for possession or personal use of a small amount of marijuana," he said when asked why his party isn't backing Trudeau's stance.
"But what we are also saying is that there are a lot of complex issues, including supply, that have to be looked at in a lot more detailed fashion.... There is still a fair amount of hard work to be done to be able to get to solutions."
Mulcair, speaking on the sidelines of the annual Canadian Medical Association meeting, also stated the obvious — the tide is turning on public perceptions about marijuana.
"Everything is moving in the same direction; even the Canadian Association of the Chiefs of Police is saying we should move away from the current system," he said after his speech, the first at the CMA conference by an Opposition leader.
He denied suggestions weed is a gateway drug, calling it a "very 1960s argument" that has been widely debunked.
"When I was a student it was part of the culture, but what we were smoking back then was about as strong as oregano compared to what's on the market today," he said.
The fact that it's stronger now, however, doesn't change his views, he added. "I think it's a matter of personal choice."
Mulcair's weed remarks came a day after Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the federal government is still assessing whether to allow police to ticket people caught with small amounts of marijuana instead of pursuing criminal charges.
Ahead of a meeting with law enforcement officials in Vancouver, MacKay said any change in legislation would have to happen soon.
"With some eight justice bills right now in the House or in the queue to come before Parliament, we're running out of runway as far as bringing legislation forward," he said.
"But that's one that I do view as important, so if we are going to introduce it, it would have to happen within the next six months."
In his speech, Mulcair accused the Tories of unsuccessfully trying to recruit Canadian doctors in an ideological crusade against marijuana.
Three medical groups, including the CMA, recently turned down a request by Ottawa to participate in a campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of marijuana use to Canadian youth. They said the issue had become a "political football."
Trudeau says the proposed campaign is a thinly veiled attack on his pro-legalization stance. Health Minister Rona Ambrose, who spoke at the conference earlier this week, scoffed at that charge.
Mulcair also accused the Conservatives of being more interested in de-funding public health care than protecting it.
Mulcair vowed that if elected, the NDP would use any budget surplus to cancel what he says are $36 billion in proposed Conservative cuts to health care over the next 10 years.
Carl Vallee, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office, disputed the NDP leader's numbers.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," he said in an email.
"Health transfer dollars to provinces are the highest they have ever been in our history and they will continue to grow in a predictable and sustainable way in the future. This record funding will reach $40 billion annually by the end of the decade."
Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25
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