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Pot decriminalized in the heart of the U.S.A.

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Get caught with a small bag of marijuana in the heart of the capital city of the United States and you are in store for an unusual punishment -- a $25 fine.

On a visit to Washington, D.C., last week I was surprised to read in my morning Washington Post that a law passed by the local council for the district went into effect to decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.

Surprised because the U.S. federal government remains staunchly against decriminalization or legalization of pot, even though it can now be legally purchased in Colorado and Washington state for both medical and non-medical use and a number of other jurisdictions have also loosened rules.

Washington, D.C., is a microcosm for the debate and the dilemma over marijuana use in the U.S., and an example for Canada where pot is almost certainly going to be a big issue in the next federal election.

Washington city police will now simply issue tickets that carry a fine less than the one imposed for littering.

But possession is still illegal under federal law. And many places in Washington are policed by federal authorities.

So you could, in theory, face nothing but a fine for walking down Pennsylvania Avenue with a bag of pot, then get arrested if you walked across Constitution Avenue to the National Mall, the national park that is home to such iconic sites as the Lincoln Memorial.

Washington council is not alone. A number of U.S. jurisdictions have opted to change their approach to drug laws, especially in light of evidence showing the most likely people to be charged with minor marijuana offences are young black men, even though use of the drug is much more evenly distributed in the population.

The district attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y., recently announced that his office will no longer prosecute minor marijuana offences. And there is proposed legislation in New York that would decriminalize possession across the state, turning it into a violation comparable to a parking ticket.

So why is this similar to Canada?

What the U.S. experience shows is that there is popular support for loosening marijuana laws and change is happening regardless of unchanging federal drug laws.

In Canada, public opinion surveys have shown for some time there is substantial public support for decriminalizing possession of marijuana and majority support for legalizing the sale of the drug.

Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau supports legalizing pot and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government opposes it.

Here we are going to see the same debate being played out in the U.S. take a central role in the federal election campaign, expected next year. Stay tuned. Just as in Washington, it's going to be interesting.

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About Bob Cox

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.

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