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More lenient marijuana laws still on the table, justice minister says

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Justice Minister Peter Mackay pauses during a media availability before a roundtable discussion on justice in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday August 19, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

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Justice Minister Peter Mackay pauses during a media availability before a roundtable discussion on justice in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday August 19, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER - The federal government is still assessing whether to allow police to ticket people caught with small amounts of marijuana instead of pursuing charges, says Justice Minister Peter MacKay.

But if government were to introduce looser pot laws, it would have to happen sooner rather than later, MacKay said Tuesday ahead of a meeting with law enforcement experts in Vancouver.

Any legislation would have to happen within the next six months, the minister said.

"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."

MacKay said he has been speaking with police and his staff have been looking at other jurisdictions, including in the U.S., to see whether ticketing for pot possession is an effective option.

Canada's police chiefs have long called for such a move. Last year, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police said that under current laws, the only enforcement option that officers have when confronted with simple possession of pot is either to turn a blind eye or pursue charges, which often results in a lengthy court process.

MacKay has already said the government was taking that into consideration.

But he stressed again Tuesday that the government remains opposed to decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana.

"We believe the harmful effects on the development of health and welfare of children in particular warrants holding the line and looking for ways in which we can assist the police in their ability to protect communities and their ability, in this instance, to make marijuana less readily available," MacKay said.

"I don't believe that the position of others to normalize marijuana, to make it more available to young people, is the direction you will ever see coming from our government."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau supports legalization, and the Opposition NDP supports decriminalization, which means the sale of marijuana isn't fully legalized, but consumers aren't criminally prosecuted.

"The Conservatives are taking a very 1950s approach ... to convince themselves about the problem," New Democrat Leader Thomas Mulcair said during a visit to Vancouver on Tuesday.

"I think adults are capable of making their own choices on these things, and all the details that are considerable will have to be looked at as well, but there is something that a government can do the day after it's elected, (which) is make sure no one is ever charged again for use or possession of marijuana for personal purposes."

Currently, anyone convicted of possessing under 30 grams of pot can face fines of up to $1,000 or as much as six months in jail, while convictions for larger amounts can carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

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