Newshawk: Chris Clay ( email@example.com)
Pubdate: Sun, 8 Mar 1998
Source: Edmonton Sun ( Canada )
Author: Kerry Diotte
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: http://www.canoe.ca/EdmontonSun/
HIGH TIME FOR HEMP
New life has been sparked into the ongoing battle to legalize pot by the strong public support shown in cases such as that of snowboarder Ross Rebagliati, who retained a gold medal after testing positive for marijuana.
Alberta Premier Ralph Klein did it and didn't get caught. Former prime minister Kim Campbell is also on record admitting she performed the deed.
Had either one of them been nabbed by cops for their act, they could have wound up with criminal records.
And just what was the thing they sheepishly admitted to doing that might have made them out-and-out criminals?
They smoked pot - and that's been illegal since 1923 when many Canadians believed the drug caused insanity.
They're two of the most high-profile Canucks to fess up to the fact they've sparked up a joint - an activity the majority of Canadians believe should not be a crime.
The latest impetus to the argument Canada should look at decriminalizing marijuana comes from the overwhelming support for snowboarder Ross Rebagliati.
The Whistler, B.C. man was temporarily stripped of a gold medal in Nagano by the International Olympic Commission for testing positive for marijuana, but got it back, essentially since the drug isn't considered performance enhancing.
Opinion among Canadians ran strongly in favor of Rebagliati keeping his medal. It didn't seem to bother many that Rebagliati confessed he'd used marijuana months ago and still hangs out with lots of pot smokers.
Criminal defence lawyer Robbie Davidson feels it's ludicrous we're still making criminals of people "who've been caught with a few joints or a bag of dope."
The Edmonton lawyer reckons his firm handles about 100 cases a year of people charged with simple possession.
The latest federal government statistics show 19,672 Canadians were charged in 1996 for possession of cannabis - up since 1992 when 17,422 people were charged. Such a charge means they possessed an ounce or less of pot and a gram or less of hash.
"Why mar someone over a joint?" asks Davidson, who, as a law student presented a brief to an early '70s-era government royal commission in which he called for the decriminalization of marijuana and proposed it should be legally sold like alcohol and tobacco.
That commission, which became known as the LeDain Commission ( for its chairman Gerald LeDain ), later recommended cannabis be decriminalized, but its findings were ignored by the federal government.
Davidson is particularly appalled Canadian prosecutors continue to press for criminal convictions on first-time offenders caught with small amounts of the drug.
"I'm working on a case now where police pulled over a guy in Banff for making an illegal turn, smelled marijuana, took it on themselves to search his vehicle and found half a joint in his cigarette package.
"The Crown intends to go ahead with the possession charge. At the very least in these cases people should get conditional or absolute discharges, yet that rarely happens."
He fumes that it's "especially hypocritical" that politicians won't decriminalize marijuana when some of them have admitted using it.
Davidson points out there's more hypocrisy in the fact that it's not considered a criminal act to use substances which are indisputably far more harmful than pot.
"For instance if you sniff solvents you're charged under a provincial public health act. Yet solvents are known to actually destroy your brain cells. And there's sure no medical use for sniffing lacquer."
Edmonton-based federal prosecutor Donna Tomljanovic says her office commonly seeks a $150 fine for anyone guilty of a first-time offence of possession of marijuana and usually gets it.
She wouldn't offer her personal views on that saying only, "I'm obliged to follow the law." Conditional or absolute discharges are still rare despite some minor changes made to Canada's drug laws in May. With those changes, marijuana is prosecuted under its own category and isn't lumped in with harder drugs but people are still convicted of a Criminal Code offence.
That fact alone is what causes the most nightmares for people unluckier than Klein or Campbell - those caught and charged for pot.
Blues musician Albert knows it only too well.
More than a year ago, five cops burst into his cosy apartment and trucked off the man's pot plants which he'd been lovingly growing for personal smoking.
He barely managed to convince prosecutors he wasn't a big-time dealer and was sentenced to a small fine and 200 hours of community service.
"I'm 42 years old and I'd never had a conviction for anything before," said Albert, who didn't want his last name used. "I consider myself a law-abiding citizen. Something like this is extremely frustrating."
After Albert's conviction, he got kicked out of his apartment, had to put possessions in storage and faced hefty legal costs - all of which he estimates set him back $4,000.
The worst part is it will impact directly on his chance to get musical gigs in the U.S.
Davidson says several of his clients have complained they've been routinely turned back from visiting the U.S. even after receiving pardons from Canadian government officials for previous pot convictions.
Decades after the Pierre Trudeau government gave a figurative finger to recommendations from the LeDain commission, politicians are doing the same.
A spokesman for Justice Minister Anne McLellan says his boss is content to keep marijuana smoking a criminal act, arguing the public wants it that way.
"She supports looking at the possibility of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes," said McLellan press secretary Pierre Gratton.
"But she has no intention of looking at the broader issue. In her view ... there's no consensus at all of legalizing it, decriminalizing it."
A recent Angus Reid national poll however, suggests there is indeed a consensus for lightening up on marijuana users.
A majority of Canadians ( 51% ) now agree smoking marijuana should not be a criminal offence, the October poll found. That's up a whopping 12% since 1987 when 39% of Canadians felt that way.
Forty-five per cent of those surveyed in the fall poll feel it should remain a criminal offence and eight in 10 Canadians think it should be legal for medicinal purposes.
The feds surprised some people recently agreeing to allow Canadian farmers to grow hemp for use in making clothing and other products. The farmers will only be authorized to produce hemp that has mere traces of the ingredient which causes smokers to get high.
Troy Stewart, the Edmonton president of True North Hemp Co., which sells clothing and smoking paraphernalia, says he'll continue supporting efforts to legalize or decriminalize pot.
"It should be treated like any other plant - like garlic," said Stewart, who's been in numerous pot rallies.
The pro-pot proponent - who says he smokes openly but has never been busted - figures things likely won't change until tokers come out of the closet to demand the government change the laws as its own commission recommend three decades ago.
Said Stewart: "Everyone who smokes has to take a stand."