Pubdate: Thu, 26 May 2016
Source: NOW Magazine (CN ON)
Copyright: 2016 NOW Communications Inc.
Author: Christian Mittelstaedt
Page: 10


The courts continue to waste time and money prosecuting people for
marijuana-related offences despite feds' promise to legalize it.
Welcome to the new war on drugs.

The war on the drugs is supposed to be coming to an end in Canada as
far as marijuana is concerned, but you wouldn't know it from the
number of pot charges still making their way through Toronto's Old
City Hall courthouse. Or, for that matter, from Mayor John Tory's
threat to shut down what he describes as the "alarming" number of
medical marijuana dispensaries cropping up around town. It's reefer
madness all over again, though the federal government has promised to
establish a regime for legalized weed by spring 2017.

On a recent morning at Old City Hall, 40 people were scheduled to
appear on various drug possession charges. It's difficult to say how
many cannabis charges are processed on a given day, but about
two-thirds of the 90,000 drug-related charges reported in Canada every
year involve pot.

Susan Morris, who in her position as duty counsel for Legal Aid in
Ottawa helps arrange plea deals for the mostly low-income clients who
come through Legal Aid Ontario (LAO), says pot cases are continuing at
a steady rate. She still sees 25 to 50 marijuana cases a month.

"It's very frustrating to see people incurring charges and convictions
for something that the government itself has said it is not just going
to decriminalize, but legalize," says Morris.

Despite the fact that the majority of us see the drug as mostly
harmless - two-thirds preferring softer laws, according to the
Department of Justice - everything down to simple possession is a
criminal offence.

Marijuana use is increasingly mainstream in Canada. Pot entrepreneurs
are looking to get a head start in the cannabis industry, and
dispensaries are popping up in Toronto.

Now those, too, face sanctions after operating in a grey zone since
the feds announced their legalization plan.

The city of Toronto had reportedly been working on regulations for
dispensaries. In Vancouver, for example, dispensaries pay fees and can
only operate a specified distance from schools and other

But last week Tory dropped da bomb, threatening a crackdown on the
operations and fines of up to $50,000. The city's Medical Officer of
Health, David McKeown, weighed in on the issue a few days later,
calling for strict regulation of dispensaries when marijuana is legalized.

Then, in a curious twist, on Tuesday, May 24, the largest licensed
medpot producer in the country, Canopy Growth Corporation, held a
press conference at City Hall to "clarify that as Torontonians and
city council wrestle with the issue of illegal dispensary
proliferation across the city, a legal, affordable and accessible
source for medical cannabis exists right here in Toronto." The company
also announced it will now be offering same-day delivery of its weed
to licensed medpot users.

The crux of the government's legalization argument is that it will
keep money out of the hands of criminals. The problem is that as we
wait to get there, organized crime is not the group feeling most of
the burn; it's ordinary Canadians getting criminal records for minor
offences and taxpayers footing the bill. Any of the nearly 50 per cent
of Canadians who the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says have
admitted to smoking pot could land in hot water the next time they
light up.

Some marijuana activists, like Vancouver's Jodie Emery, have called
for a moratorium on cannabis arrests.

"There's no harm being done [by users], so having tax dollars spent on
persecuting and arresting people is a waste and a violation of their
liberty," she says.

The Criminal Lawyers' Association echoes that sentiment. In February
the CLA wrote to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould urging the
government to issue a stay of proceedings on simple possession
charges. Michael Lacy, a vice-president at CLA, says the courts are
wasting time and money persecuting people for something that won't
remain a crime for long.

"It takes up time and delays those cases that should be getting to
trial," he says.

Former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, the parliamentary secretary
heading the Liberals' legalization efforts, reaffirms the government's
intent to loosen the country's drug laws, but says there's no rush.

The Justice Ministry offered a similar response to the CLA, saying
that a task force is reviewing the legalization files and that current
laws should continue to be followed.

"It's a very polite way of saying we're not going to be staying or
imposing a moratorium on current prosecutions before the court," says
Lacy. "What they don't appear to be considering is any sort of
short-term policy."

The cost of enforcing marijuana prohibition in Canada is significant.
A University of Ottawa study put the figure at around $500 million a

Simple possession - typically, any amount under 30 grams - won't lead
to a jail sentence, but other offences, like trafficking in minor
amounts or cultivating a few plants, can.

Morris says the courts are becoming more lenient, in line with public
opinion, but both they and the police must still enforce the law.

In the meantime, those convicted who avoid incarceration will still
have a criminal record and the adverse consequences that go with that.
Things like travelling abroad and finding a job become much harder.

"A criminal record is far more damaging than the use of cannabis
itself," observes Craig Jones of the National Organization for the
Reform of Marijuana Laws in Canada.

"Most employers will ask for a criminal record check, and you can't
get a clean criminal record check if you have a conviction on your
record, sometimes even when you have a conditional discharge," says

So the tense looks on the faces of the accused at the Toronto
courthouse aren't hard to understand.

Morris adds that even when legalization is enacted, the many thousands
of people with criminal convictions will likely continue to have that
blot on their record.

"Looking through every single person's criminal record to see if they
had a conviction for simple possession of marijuana, and then
expunging that and issuing a pardon for that specific offence - that's
a huge, huge endeavour," she says.

It seems the government is willing to sacrifice a few people on the
way to legalization. Blair has made it clear that "until Parliament
has enacted new legislation and new rules are in place to ensure that
marijuana is carefully regulated, current laws remain in force and
should be obeyed."

Critics note that laws enacted by the former Conservative government
increased the penalties for a variety of marijuana offences.

The solution isn't to force legalization through Parliament as soon as
possible. Rather, activists say, it is to change the present laws to
ensure that more Canadians aren't criminalized for recreational
marijuana use.

"It makes sense for them to declare a moratorium on further
criminalization for possession. In other words, to stand down on
arrests for cannabis possession," says Jones. This would still take
some time to go through Parliament but would buy the Liberals some
time to figure out the finer details of legalization.

But Morris says things aren't that simple. A moratorium would require

"Someone can't just say there's a moratorium; it wouldn't stop people
from being charged. The change has to be in the law itself."

Until that happens, tokers might want to look over their shoulder
before sparking up.
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