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In Canada's Marijuana Debate, Supreme Court Backs Criminal Penalties 


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Source: Washington Post (DC)
Author: DeNeen L. Brown, Washington Post Foreign Service
Published: Wednesday, December 24, 2003; Page A10 
Copyright: 2003 Washington Post 
Contact: [email protected]

Toronto -- Canada's Supreme Court endorsed the enforcement of criminal penalties for smoking marijuana on Tuesday, but left open the possibility that Parliament could still decriminalize casual use of the drug at a later time. 

"There is no free-standing constitutional right to smoke pot for recreational purposes," the court said in a 6-to-3 decision. The ruling comes as Canada's new prime minister, Paul Martin, prepares to reintroduce a bill by which people would not be jailed for possession of small amounts of marijuana, while penalties for large growers and traffickers would increase. 

It is unclear when such a bill would be reintroduced after Parliament convenes in February. "The law is the law until it is changed," said Mario Lague, a spokesman for Martin. "Decriminalization is not legalization. It is not a nuance. We are not legalizing marijuana." 

In an interview on Monday, Martin said he supported a bill first introduced in May by his predecessor, Jean Chretien. "We are simply saying it doesn't make sense for a young person who is caught with a small quantity to have a record for life," Martin said. 

Under Chretien's proposal, possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana, about half an ounce, would be punishable by a fine of up to $290 for adults and $182 for minors. 

The proposal, which died when Chretien closed Parliament in November, was strongly criticized by the Bush administration, which said decriminalization of even small amounts of marijuana would encourage more drug use. John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, raised concerns that illegal drug imports from Canada would increase. "Some of the strongest and most dangerous marijuana" is being exported from Canada to the United States, Walters said in an interview earlier this year. 

Paul Cellucci, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, has warned that U.S. Customs officials might intensify drug searches on the Canadian border if a new law is passed. Canadian officials estimated that $4 billion to $7 billion worth of Canadian marijuana is sold in the United States each year. 

Canadian officials have said that the proposed legislation would impose tougher penalties for growing operations and trafficking. The bill would also include a national program about the harm of drug use. 

The Supreme Court ruling was based on two appeals brought by three men charged with violating drug laws. The men argued that Canada's laws prohibiting simple possession of marijuana by threatening imprisonment violated their rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada's constitution. 

David Malmo-Levine, who describes himself as a marijuana freedom activist, said he had argued his case before the Supreme Court after smoking hashish. Malmo-Levine helped run an organization called the Harm Reduction Club, a nonprofit association in Vancouver, where in 1996 police seized more than 300 grams of marijuana, most of it rolled into joints. 

A second case was brought by Victor Eugene Caine, arrested for marijuana possession while sitting in a van by the ocean in British Columbia. A third case brought by Christopher James Clay, who owned a store in Ontario that sold hemp products and small marijuana plants. 

In the court ruling Tuesday, the court cited evidence of health risks to chronic marijuana users, including respiratory diseases, "cannabis dependence syndrome, increased risk of cancer, cognitive impairment and birth defects. 

"There is a risk that, upon legalization, rates of use will increase and with that, the absolute number of chronic users will increase," the court said. "In addition, there are health risks for those vulnerable persons." It listed among such people "young adolescents who may be more prone to becoming chronic users." 

The court said, "There is no doubt that Canadian society has become much more skeptical about the alleged harm caused by the use of marihuana since the days when . . . a magistrate warned that persons under the influence of marihuana 'lose all sense of moral responsibility, are immune to pain, becoming raving maniacs liable to kill . . . using the most savage methods of cruelty.' However, to exonerate marihuana from such extreme forms of denunciation is not to say it is harmless." 

Malmo-Levine said in a telephone interview from British Columbia that he was disappointed in the court's ruling. 

"I think it is horrible," Malmo-Levine said. "I think it is the grinch that stole Christmas. Their hearts are two sizes too small. We gave them all the reasons in the world to have drug peace and drug freedom. They could have waited a couple of days and have the decency not to ruin our Christmas." 

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