Source: Montreal Gazette (CN QU)
Author: Janice Tibbetts, CanWest News Service
Published: Monday, December 22, 2003
Copyright: 2003 The Gazette, a division of Southam Inc.
Contact: [email protected]
As the Martin government moves to relax marijuana laws, the Supreme Court of Canada will decide tomorrow whether to give pot advocates the big prize: legalization.
The long-awaited rulings in three cases will be the Supreme Court's first test of the constitutionality of the country's 80-year-old ban on marijuana possession.
"This is very significant," said Chris Clay, a B.C. Web-page designer who owned the Great Canadian Hemporium marijuana paraphernalia and seed store in London, Ont., before police shut it down.
"It sounds like the Liberals are going to decriminalize, and that's a step in the right direction, but ultimately legalization is the solution we're looking for."
Clay, 32, laughed at the prospect of sticking a bit of weed in the Christmas pudding if the ruling goes his way.
He is one of three litigants who argue that threatening people with a criminal record and jail time for what they contend is a victimless crime breaches Charter of Rights guarantees of life, liberty and security of the person.
The federal Justice Department counters that the Supreme Court should give Parliament as much leeway as possible in crafting drug policy.
"All three appellants seek to elevate a recreational pursuit to a constitutional right," federal lawyer David Frankel said in a written submission to the Supreme Court. "There is no free-standing right to get stoned."
A key question in the appeal is whether the government must demonstrate a serious health risk if it wants to continue to ban marijuana possession.
The government has "no right to tell people what they can put in their bodies," lawyer John Conroy argued at the Supreme Court hearing last spring.
"Where do you draw the line?" Conroy asked. "Are fatty foods going to be next? The obesity problem is a lot worse that the drug problem."
Conroy is the lawyer for Victor Caine, who was convicted of possession for sharing a joint with a friend in his car while parked at a beach near Vancouver.
The third litigant is David Malmo-Levine, who formed the Vancouver-based Harm Reduction Club for marijuana smokers.
The federal government plans to impose fines rather than criminal records on people caught with small amounts of marijuana.
Justice Minister Irwin Cotler stressed that lawmakers oppose giving pot smokers free rein.
"This is how Parliament has spoken on this question and we will wait to see what the court will say," he said in an interview.
Despite its plans, the government has filed a report with the Supreme Court that connects marijuana use to driving accidents, upper-airway cancer, psychiatric problems and drug addiction, among other things.
"Marijuana is not a benign substance and potentially is more harmful than presently known," the Justice Department's submission said.
Several judges during the spring hearing were frosty to the arguments of the marijuana lobby. But they also challenged the government's assertion that it can criminalize any behaviour it sees fit, as long as the decision is a rational one.
Although it is rare, judges can impose prison terms of up to seven years for marijuana possession.
Prime Minister Paul Martin said last week that the government will revive a marijuana bill that died in November when Parliament was prorogued.
The government's proposal, however, could be a watered-down version of the former bill, which proposed to decriminalize possession of 15 grams or less, about the equivalent of 15 cigarettes.
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