Eased Laws on Gay Unions Pot Widen Ideological Gap

Eased Laws on Gay Unions Pot Widen Ideological Gap
Posted by CN Staff on June 30, 2003 at 23:32:05 PT
By Maureen Feighan, The Detroit News
Source: Detroit News 
Windsor -- It's 3 p.m. on a bright Monday afternoon, and Tim Morewood and Jessica Oulette are sharing a marijuana cigarette with a group of friends on the Windsor waterfront just a few barge-lengths from the Detroit shoreline. Morewood, a lean 21-year-old with spiky blond hair and a chest tattoo, isn't worried about Windsor cops catching a whiff of the joint and throwing him in jail. In Canada, having less than 15 grams of pot typically results in no jail time, just a ticket, fine and criminal record. Even less strict penalties are being considered. 
Morewood, who lived briefly in West Bloomfield, knows it would be different in the United States. That's why he's glad he doesn't live there anymore. "I hate their laws. You get busted with a roach and you get charged. They should be focusing on crack dealers." Welcome to Canada, the land of hockey lovers and Molson makers that has established itself as one of the most liberal nations in the world. First federal lawmakers proposed bills to decriminalize marijuana use, which are pending. Now, the federal government has taken yet another bold political step by deciding not to appeal a high court ruling that struck down a ban on gay marriage, making it only the third nation in the world to legalize same-sex unions. Experts say Canadians always have been more left of center in their political thinking than Americans. The legal drinking age is 19, national health care has been in place since the 1980s, and guns are tightly regulated. And while academics say such left-leaning politics are bound to continue as long as Prime Minister Jean Chretien is running the show in Canada's Parliament -- he's been in power since 1993 -- many policies put it at odds with the United States, where hot-button issues such as gay marriage and legalizing pot use are largely opposed. Polls show approximately 51 percent of Americans oppose gay marriage, while 62 percent oppose legalizing marijuana. In fact, 37 U.S. states, including Michigan, have laws that define marriage as only between a man and a woman. "Canadian and American society seems to be diverging, not converging," said Jerry Herron, a professor of English and American studies at Wayne State University. But will Canada's liberal ways rub off on the United States? Experts say it's too early to tell, but suspect it's unlikely. Will international law rule? Challenges in U.S. court are likely by gay couples who marry in the Canada and try to have their unions recognized in the States. "Possibly an argument could be made that we have international law with Canada and we're bound to recognize marriages in other countries, but that's complicated," said Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. "Given the current makeup of our courts, (legal challenges) would be very difficult because it's quite conservative." As for relaxing marijuana possession laws, U.S. customs officials suspect little impact on the United States or border patrol. Marijuana is illegal in Canada, but the proposed bill would simply relax penalties. Some medicinal use is legal. "Maybe there will be a large number of Americans going to Canada to smoke joints, but I doubt it," said Pat Jones, a spokesman for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection. "I just don't see that happening." Backlash already has erupted from some groups in response to Canada's new stance on gay marriage. Worried that Michigan's law against gay marriage could be challenged in court, the American Family Association of Michigan wants a constitutional amendment put on the November 2004 ballot in Michigan that would ask voters to define marriage as an act between only a man and woman. One state lawmaker has announced plans to introduce such an amendment at the start of the fall session. Executive Director Gary Glenn worries Canada's new stance, coupled with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last week to strike down sodomy laws in Texas, could one day lead to Michigan's law being challenged. "That's the motivation for putting it into the Constitution," Glenn said. Countries far apartExperts say there are myriad reasons why Canada and the United State are so politically far apart, including history, geography, and a Canadian sense of social responsibility. But they say U.S. and Canadian political differences are a good thing. "We're like the cantankerous brothers in a family at Thanksgiving," Herron said. "But I think that's healthy. As an American, I feel profoundly challenged by the moral dignity of a lot of things the Canadians do ... and certainly we depend on each other in an economic way." Nathan Menoian, a car salesman from Novi, always perceived Canadians as the "pretty traditional family type." Now, he believes the country may have opened up a political can of worms by allowing gay marriage. "What that does is spark a bunch of other issues around it -- financial issues, emotional issues, spiritual issues," Menoian said. "I don't think of them as any less. I just think they're in for some stormy waters." But many Canadians say they're just more relaxed than Americans. Karen Steel of Windsor said she doesn't have a problem with either gay marriage or decriminalizing marijuana use. "I think everyone should get married if they want," Steel said. "You guys are more into politics than Canadians. With us, it's just not an issue." Jon Ellison, 36, of Royal Oak regards Canadian attitudes so highly he is seriously contemplating moving there to start a hemp farm. He said it's ridiculous he can't do it here. "This whole country was supposed to be based on freedom and respecting each other, and it's all broken down," Ellison said. Two nations far different Given that 90 percent of Canada's roughly 31 million residents live within 100 miles of the U.S. border, it's hard to believe that the two nations are so ideologically different. Herron contends American and Canadian differences are rooted in their very histories. Canada, a former French colony conquered by the British in the 1760s that didn't become its own separate nation until 1931, still has ties to both cultures, which tend to be more liberal, whereas the United States hasn't had such European ties since the Revolutionary War. Herron contends it is those ties to an older culture that allow Canada to take chances on issues such as decriminalizing marijuana use, gay marriage, even nude dancing, that younger cultures such as the United States might balk at. "My guess is that Canadians at some level feel attached to a culture that is so old that you can take chances," Herron said. But Philip Handrick, director of the Canadian Studies Centre at Michigan State University, believes geography also plays a role in Canadians' openness and acceptance of what might considered taboo in the United States. Canadians, spread out across a land mass bigger than the United States, have had to make sacrifices throughout their history to help the nation get on its feet and survive, Handrick said. "Canadians really have a sense of themselves as being a part of a collective enterprise," Handrick said. Religion separates countries Experts say one of the biggest differences between Americans and Canadians is religion. While a 2002 ABC News/Beliefnet poll found that 85 percent of Americans consider themselves Christian, many Canadians don't identify themselves with a specific church or religion, said Howard Pawley, a retired professor from the University of Windsor who spent nearly 20 years in politics, including seven as premier of the province of Manitoba. A premier is similar to a governor. "There's been a shift in this respect over the last 25 years in Canada, much more so than the United States," Pawley said. "The reasons -- I think it's just been sort of an evolving situation. That doesn't mean Canadians aren't religious, but they're less inclined to identify themselves with an institutionalized religion." Canadians view Americans as very moralistic, "drawing things in black and white," Handrick said. "In Canada, they're much more skeptical," he said. Moral issues also don't carry much political capital in Canadian politics, said Bruce Tucker, an American history professor at the University of Windsor. "Moral issues are not issues that a party can depend on to really get them a lot of support, not to say it's an immoral country or an amoral country," Tucker said. "People are just not terribly interested in that kind of discourse." Canada has some issues Canadians admit they aren't without problems. Tucker said racism is a problem. Canada's economy is one-tenth the size of the United States, Handrick said. And its unemployment rate is about 7 percent, compared to 6.1 percent in the United States. And despite all its openness and acceptance, Amy Blake, owner of A Woman's Perogative in Ferndale, said she's heard of lesbian bookstores in Canada that had new books blocked at the Canadian border because customs officials deemed them pornographic. Kathy Kennedy, a resident of Onondaga, near Lansing, who sits on the Michigan board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said as puritanical and conservative as the United States may be perceived, she believes Canada and the United States are really not all that different, and change is coming in the United States. She said politics are like a pendulum. "We swung far enough to the left" during the Clinton administration "that we had to swing back," Kennedy said. "It's just a matter of time." Note: Liberal Canada annoys U.S.Source: Detroit News (MI)Author: Maureen Feighan, The Detroit NewsPublished: July 1, 2003Copyright: 2003 The Detroit News Contact: letters Website: Related Articles & Web Site:NORML! 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