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Decriminalizing marijuana a no-brainer

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Source: London Free Press (CN ON)
Contact: letters@lfpress.com
Pubdate: August 4, 2000
Author: David Dauphinee, The London Free Press

Decriminalizing marijuana a no-brainer

Ten-month-old Dylan Clay is making happy little baby noises while his
dad Chris talks expectantly of a day when the family can visit
Disneyland.

Realistically, any travel by Clay outside Canada will be a long way off.


Like 600,000 other Canadians who have fallen victim to Canada's
senseless and futile efforts to prohibit marijuana use, the 29-year-old
former Londoner has a criminal record that severely restricts travel.

The United States, with its war on drugs so conveniently papering over
a host of social ills from decaying cities to lousy test scores for
students, will be off-limits for some time.

But, unlike the Canadians who chalk up a pot bust to a youthful
indiscretion or hide it from friends and bosses, Clay doesn't care who
knows. The law is wrong and he's out to change it.

The Ontario Court of Appeal knocked the socks off the federal
government this week when it ordered the law changed to permit medical
use of marijuana -- or face court- imposed cancellation of all
prohibitions.

Of course marijuana should be available to treat the symptoms of
illnesses such as AIDS or epilepsy. The fact Ottawa challenged this
issue defies comprehension.

If marijuana makes patients feel better, and it does, government should
merely figure out how to make it available. Canadians should have
access to their choice of medicine.

In the words of Osgoode Hall professor and lawyer Alan Young, who
argued the case, the medical use issue is a "no-brainer."

At the same time, the court passed judgment on an even more important
case that was all but overlooked in the media scramble to manufacture
what-if scenarios from the medical marijuana decision.

The appeal court's stockpile of bravery exhausted on medical marijuana,
it upheld a decision prohibiting Clay from possessing pot for
recreational purposes.

Clay's argument there are no harmful effects and that criminalization
poses a greater threat was received sympathetically, but to no avail.

No one really expected the decision to be the end in either case.

Clay's is one of three marijuana cases moving slowly to the Supreme
Court of Canada. Another, the medical marijuana case, will no doubt be
appealed by the feds if only to buy more time than the one-year
deadline. The other is in British Columbia.

Steadily, persistently, almost from the day London cops swooped down
May 17, 1995, on his King Street shop -- the Great Canadian Hemp
Emporium -- Clay has fought to end the criminalization of marijuana
users.

"They came at the end of the day, about 20 police officers, and they
took me straight to jail and held me for the night," he recalls.

"They went through my home the next morning and really trashed it -- it
looked like somebody had broken in. All the drawers were emptied out,
all the closets, it was a disaster.

"They also charged friends of mine who were staying at the house and
employees who were at the store."

Five years and $40,000 later -- lawyers, including Young, are working
for free -- he predicts his case will be at the Supreme Court about
this time next year.

Along the way, he has been helped by many contributors, including
another ex-Londoner. Former City Lights book store owner Marc Emery,
who has carved out a niche selling pot seeds, has promised to
contribute $5,000 to the upcoming fight -- on top of thousands he has
already contributed, says Clay.

There's a high cost to acting on principle. Photocopying alone has cost
more than $10,000. Another $30,000 went to things like expert
witnesses, flying them in, putting them up in hotels, and occasional
honoraria.

Over those five years under a microscope, Clay has sensed a shift in
public opinion.

"Prohibition has done nothing to stem the marijuana trade, it is
everywhere and people can easily find it."

More than one-quarter of Canadians admit to having smoked grass at some
point. When that many Canadians say the law is an ass and disobey it,
when a majority support decriminalizing it, when the courts downgrade
sentences to a fine or suspended sentence, the need for a change should
be apparent to even the most skittish Ottawa politician.

As it stands, Young argues the law has only a political purpose -- it
protects Ottawa from retaliation by our southern neighbour for whom
drugs are a bogeyman. And a drug that's so ubiquitous is a perfect foil
for police in chasing other concerns.

The worst part is that prohibition brings so many Canadians in contact
with organized crime. Pot costs about the same to grow as tomatoes,
says Clay. But a pound of tomatoes sells for $2 to $3, while marijuana
costs $3,000. The untaxed difference goes to a black market and
organized crime. And in the hands of crooks, there's no such thing as
quality control, so potency has ratcheted up.

Age limits?

Sure -- how about the same as for booze.

And hit drivers impaired by pot as hard as you would those wrenched
from reality by Pernod or Percodan.

But there's no longer any policy or scientific justification for
arguing booze and smokes are OK but users of a less harmful substance
should get slapped with a criminal record.

David Dauphinee (ddauphinee@lfpress.com) is a writer with The London
Free Press. His column appears Fridays.