Canada’s marijuana laws are in a state of confusion never before seen in the nation’s history.
The federal government says they are going to soon decriminalize, Ontario courts have ruled the nation’s pot laws invalid, and the Supreme Court is set to offer their ruling before the end of the year,
Canada’s Liberal government has introduced a new bill which would “decriminalize” marijuana possession, while increasing penalties for trafficking and cultivation.
The bill, introduced on May 27, but not likely to pass until the fall, would make possession of up to 15 grams of pot punishable by fines ranging between $100 and $250 for youths and $150 to $400 for adults.
According to government officials, the bill would make the following changes to Canada’s pot laws:
* Possession of 15 grams becomes a “contravention” punishable only by a fine.
* Possession of 15 to 30 grams may be charged as either a contravention or a criminal offense at the discretion of the officer involved.
* Penalties are lowered for the cultivation of three or fewer plants to a maximum of 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine. Under current law, all cultivation is punishable by up to seven years in prison.
* Penalties are lowered for the cultivation of four to 25 plants to a maximum of 18 months and a $25,000 fine, but prosecutors have the option of charging cultivation in this range as an “indictable offense” (similar to a felony) punishable by up to five years in prison. Because the penalty is less than five years no jury trial is allowed.
* Penalties are increased for the cultivation of more than 25 plants. For 26-50 plants, the penalty is a maximum of 10 years in prison, plus fines, and for more than 50 plants, 14 years in prison, plus substantial fines.
* Penalties for trafficking remain unchanged.
* There are no provisions regarding medical marijuana.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien has said he wants the bill to be passed in the winter, before he is set to retire in February 2004. Yet the bill may not get passed, as it has suffered intense criticism by members of the Liberal Party itself. Emboldened by their current leader’s impending departure, various Liberal MP’s have called the bill “nuts” and “badly flawed.”
Ontario judges toss law
Meanwhile, a May 16 Ontario court decision effectively legalized possession in Canada’s largest province. Ontario Superior Court Justice Steven Rogin ruled that the federal government had failed in its obligation to change the law to allow for medical use of marijuana, and so the entire law was void.
This decision is binding on Ontario’s lower courts, which means that no-one can be convicted of pot possession in Ontario. However, the decision is being appealed and could still be overturned by a higher court.
The fallout from this decision is still being felt across Canada. As lawyers in other provinces advance similar arguments, a judge in Windsor, Ontario, simply dismissed 22 cases for marijuana possession on June 2. Saying that pot possession was not an “offence known to law,” Justice Micheline Rawlins dismissed all the cases and let the defendants go free.
This was the first time marijuana-possession charges have been dismissed in bulk like that. but in other Ontario regions prosecutors have adjourned or stayed charges. (The stays deactivate charges for one year, when they’ll be dismissed if prosecutors don’t reinstate them.)
Although judges are dismissing cases and prosecutors are staying charges, most Ontario police departments are resisting the court rulings and insisting they will continue to bust people for possession. “Everything will be done the same way we’ve been doing it,” Sgt Kevin Trudell of the Windsor, Ontario drug investigation unit told the media. “People will be arrested if they are caught with marijuana.”
Justice Rogin’s ruling erased Canada’s cannabis laws because they did not provide enough access to medicinal marijuana. Yet the proposed new law does not address medical marijuana at all, so it is unclear if the Liberal bill would ultimately overrule the Ontario Superior Court decision.
Supreme Court to rule
Along with the spreading impact of Justice Rogin’s decision, there is a third aspect to the unfolding drama of Canada’s cannabis scene.
Canada’s Supreme Court is set to issue a major decision on Canada’s pot laws which could re-define the entire way the Canada deals with marijuana. Their decision, based upon a massive, three-pronged legal challenge based on a trio of cases covering the spectrum of possession, cultivation and trafficking, is due some time before the end of the year.
What the Supreme Court ruling will say is open to speculation, but it is likely that it will force the feds to rewrite their proposed new bill, leading to further confusion about the actual status of pot in Canada.
The fourth confounding factor in the Canadian cannabis equation is their neighbor to the south. American officials have repeatedly warned Canada that any changes to liberalize their pot laws will be met with increased scrutiny at the border and huge added costs to Canadian exporters.
“Canada is an exploding source of highly-potent marijuana,” said John Walters, director of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the media. “It’s a multibillion-dollar industry and most of the production is headed south. We don’t want the border with Canada looking like the US-Mexico border.”
Canadian Justice Minister has met with American officials to show them the proposed new law, receiving criticism in Parliamewnt that the bill got to be scrutinized by US officials before it was even shown to canada’s legislature.
Cauchon has also gone to great lengths in claiming that the new bill is written by and for Canadians. “I’m responding to a Canadian situation according to Canadian realities,” said Cauchon, desperately repeating that Canado is a “sovereign nation.”
Although the final outcome is hard to determine, it is safe to say that the coming year is going to see ongoing debate and repeated changes to the law as the courts and a conflicted Parliament try to create a new pot law which will satisfy everyone.
* The marijuana bill is available online at: www.parl.gc.ca/37/2/parlbus/chambus/house/bills/government/C-38/C-38_1/C-38TOCE.html
* A background paper on the bill is available online at: www.hc-sc.gc.ca/english/media/releases/2003/2003_34bk2.htm