Legalisation Advocates Have The Momentum
When the delegate from St-Eustache took the floor at the federal Liberal Party convention two weeks ago, it was yet another step on a long trail that began in a Quebec pot field 15 years ago. In 1983, the ink was barely dry on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when "Backyard Bob" Hamon of Ormstown was busted for cultivation and possession of marijuana.
With little public support and zero funding, he embarked on a 10-year odyssey through the courts in the first-ever constitutional challenge to Canada's marijuana laws. His battle ended when the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. He was ultimately convicted, but today's pot advocates readily acknowledge his trail-blazing fight.
"It was a valiant effort that set the stage for a number of the challenges that are now before the courts," says Chris Clay.
Clay should know. A few years ago, he was the mild-mannered proprietor of a London, Ontario, hemp store. When arrested and charged with "trafficking marijuana," he followed Bob's example and embarked on a constitutional challenge of his own.
He raised funds by selling "Victory Bonds" on the Internet - redeemable in pot once the laws are changed - and recruited Toronto law professor Alan Young to the cause. When his case came up, they caught the Crown by surprise by putting the law itself on trial.
Among the defence witnesses was Lynn Harichey, a multiple sclerosis victim and mother of two, who described how marijuana was the only medicine that eased her pain and made life bearable. Others testified as to its effectiveness in helping cope with AIDS, cancer, muscular dystrophy, glaucoma and epilepsy. Though Chris Clay was eventually found guilty, Justice John McCart lashed out at the stupidity of the pot laws and challenged federal politicians to change them. Had Clay presented a simple case of medical marijuana, he said, his verdict would have been much different.
So different, that a few days later Lynn Harichey was inspired to show up on the steps of the London police station with a joint in hand to be promptly and publicly arrested. Her trial is scheduled for late April.
In December a Toronto judge ruled that Terry Parker, an epileptic, had a clear constitutional right to possess and grow cannabis to help control his seizures. The judge ordered Parker's confiscated pot plants be returned to him but police claim they were "probably destroyed."
Emboldened by these recent court decisions and public-opinion polls following the Ross Rebagliati-Olympics fiasco, Canadian cannabis advocates are now flexing their political and constitutional muscles.
Toronto AIDS sufferer Jim Wakeford is suing the federal government to provide him with marijuana. Wakeford argues that outlawing the pot needed to fight the nausea caused by the disease and by the 40 prescription pills he takes daily is a violation of his Charter rights. And in Regina, multiple sclerosis sufferer Grant Krieger is fighting a similar battle for his legal supply of marijuana.
The fight is also being waged on other fronts. In Vancouver, a compassion club providing free marijuana to the sick and needy has become an accepted part of the local landscape. The Toronto-based Medical Marijuana Resource Centre Centre recently announced formation of several such clubs throughout Southern Ontario ( membership is restricted to those able to prove they have serious or terminal diseases ). Medical marijuana clubs are also planned for Montreal and Quebec City later this year.
In some cases, the pot laws are not only being challenged; they're being flagrantly assaulted.
In perhaps one of the dumbest busts in recent memory, three weeks ago Vancouver police conducted a daytime raid on the city's latest tourist attraction, the Cannabis Café, headquarters of HempBC. Among those arrested was Mark Emery, the Paul Watson of the marijuana movement, who observers say will not only go the constitutional distance but will dance circles around his prosecutors in the process.
For veteran pot warrior Backyard Bob Hamon, all of this comes as good news, but he's already been there and done that. Now that he has had his day in court, he's content taking the battle where he thinks it should have been fought in the first place, the political mainstream.
"Our courts will simply not accept that they have the power to overturn political decisions," he said. "That's what the Chris Clay decision was all about."
This is how Hamon ended up as delegate to the recent Liberal convention. He went there to push the drug question, and in a nationally televised broadcast, probably watched by dozens across the country, he faced Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and asked him point-blank: "Mr Prime Minister, I had a dream that you and the Liberal Party would lead us out this morass of death and destruction that has been our nation's drug policy." Then, pausing for effect, he added, "Was I wrong?"
Chrétien didn't answer. He glared at Hamon a moment, then without a word passed the microphone over to Justice Minister Anne McLelland. With a full five minutes of mindless rhetoric, ever mindful of the TV camera's glare, she paid glowing tribute to Hamon's long struggle and expressed her heartfelt concerns for the critical issues that he had so eloquently raised. She punctuated her remarks with equally heartfelt assurances that she and her cabinet colleagues would earnestly and urgently "study the problem."
While not exactly the straight answer or ringing endorsement that he'd hoped for, Hamon, ever the good soldier, refused to criticize his Liberal colleagues.
"I'm not disappointed," he said afterward. "I believe Anne McClelland has her heart in the right place and eventually she'll help our nation's drug addicts. I also believe [Health Minister] Allan Rock understands enough about the issue to finally act and he will do something soon to allow medical cannabis."
He does regret that political parties and governments in general have not supported any of the numerous resolutions they have passed over the years that promised to treat drug use as a social and health problem.
"Every year," he said, "there's a thousand or so heroin deaths that could have been prevented, and that hurts."
Though firmly entrenched now in the political mainstream, ( read: federal Liberals ), Backyard Bob has the highest regard for the younger generation of cannabis advocates who are following his footsteps through the courts.
"Absolutely," he says. "When it comes to the marijuana laws, I believe you should always fight. Never give in and never give up.
"And if you can afford it," he adds, "make a federal case out of it." If you steal a clean slate, does it go on your record?