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Outspoken law professor at forefront of crusade to reform Canada's pot laws

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The word "liberty" is scrawled on the blackboard as Alan Young launches into
one of his asides.

Did you know, he asks his students at the University of Toronto, that
commercials for a well-known sexual performance-boosting drug could be

A section of the Criminal Code bans advertising drugs intended to promote
sexual virility, he explains.

"Don't try telling me they're not promoting virility =97 the guy's dancing,"
says Young, the outspoken law professor at the forefront of the crusade to
reform Canada's drug laws.

A decisive moment in the battle is expected Tuesday when the Supreme Court
of Canada rules on whether banning recreational pot smoking is
unconstitutional. Young is a long-time lawyer for one of three men at the
centre of the fight.

Under the circumstances, it seems entirely appropriate that Young is getting
ready to show a movie called Grass. But first he takes the class through a
discussion of other hot-button topics, including assisted suicide, abortion
and a nasty case involving a group of amorous blood relatives in Nova Scotia
who went to court to challenge the country's incest laws.

Young wonders aloud if they didn't have a point about the government butting
out of their lives, even though he finds their pastime creepy and

"There are enough sexual partners out there, I think, that you can leave the
family members alone," he says. "But does the state have the right to ban

Young's provocative manner is a hit with students.

"He's my favourite professor," says Elizabeth Pluss. "He makes it

For Young, 46, pushing boundaries is standard fare.

From defending a dominatrix who ran a "bondage bungalow" to a shopkeeper
charged with selling "obscene" records, the Harvard-educated, self-described
"neurotic" has made a career out of challenging the state's power to use the
criminal law to intrude into people's lives =97 and a name for himself as a
controversial scholar and showman. Quite an accomplishment for someone who
never wanted a career in law.

Young's most recent case was a mixed success. Earlier this fall, the Ontario
Court of Appeal ruled that the federal government was unconstitutionally
restricting the rights of medical marijuana users and paved the way for
large cannabis growing collectives.

But the court also recriminalized simple possession.

Young hasn't been above some high-profile shenanigans to focus attention on
the cause, including leading a "million marijuana march" through downtown
Toronto. While he enjoys the entertainment factor, the merry-making usually
has a purpose, according to those who know him best.

Young is a "natural advocate" and "very bright" academic who thrives on
teaching himself and others about the law, says criminal lawyer Marie
Henein, a friend and former student.

And he is a great educator because he "can connect with any audience" =97
young people especially, since he has a vast knowledge of pop culture and
loves showing it off, says defence lawyer Paul Burstein, one of Young's
closest friends.

Those teaching skills, in turn, make him a good courtroom lawyer because, in
essence, "he is educating the judiciary."

But is Young too talented for his own good? "There are those in the
profession who have very high regard for Alan" =97 for the quality of his
work, his courtroom results and the countless hours he's devoted to cases
free of charge, Burstein says. But some "have very little respect."

"With some of them, it's just politics," he says. "They don't like his
approach to the whole institution of law. They don't like him rocking the

"And this book is not going to help."

The book he is referring to is Young's newly published Justice Defiled. In
it, Young rips apart the entire "criminal justice industrial complex." His
most vicious criticism is reserved for law schools, which he calls breeding
grounds for "politically correct little bastards."

He realizes that exposes him to charges of hypocrisy, since the profession
is how he's made his living, but says he wrote the book while he was coming
out of a difficult period personally and professionally and considering
leaving the law altogether.

Within the space of a couple of years, Young's marriage broke up, his sister
died of cancer, he was defrauded by a colleague and became the target of a
student harassment complaint, which ultimately wasn't pursued. To cope, he
took a leave of absence, moved into an apartment with his Belgian Shepherd,
Salem, and spent a year studying Japanese flute and Shiatsu massage.

For a while he eased the pain by plunging into dozens of minor criminal
trials. When he was asked to write a book, it served "as a bit of a purge."

In it, he urges ordinary people to "reclaim lost turf" through an
alternative justice system, one that would allow them to represent
themselves in many cases. They'd "get killed" doing that today because the
system is monopolized by a rude and abrasive "knowledge elite" called
lawyers, he says.

Where has it got us? The state is squandering resources prosecuting cases
involving little more than controversial "lifestyle choices" =97 such as
recreational drug use =97 and not devoting enough attention to serious=
like home invasions or serial murders, he says. The needs of victims often
get overlooked, he adds.

Being a lawyer was never Young's ambition.He had always wanted to be a
writer, but eventually went to law school, in part, to please his parents.

He worked as a law clerk for Chief Justice Bora Laskin at the Supreme Court
of Canada and later landed a job with leading criminal lawyer Alan Gold, who
advised him that practising law "is a series of lows punctuated by the
occasional high."

Young says he considered the advice so important he's passed it along to
other young lawyers. But it's something he could never accept.

"Some lawyers will ride a jury acquittal for the rest of the year, but it
never worked for me," says Young, who reached a turning point in 1985, while
representing one of several men charged in a huge marijuana and hashish
smuggling conspiracy. The ringleader was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Young's client got 14 years.

Considering people "were going down for two years less a day" for attempted
murder, the outcome left Young feeling disillusioned and angry.

He escaped into academia. As a professor at Osgoode Hall law school at York
University, Young made a speciality out of challenging laws he saw as
nothing more than "exercises in moral hygiene."

He says he's "seriously independent" by nature and the cases he's taken on
have "suited my personality," even though some might consider them on the
fringe. "Doing conventional murder and robbery cases largely doesn't change
the world."

He began to grow dispirited with teaching law in the mid-1990s. Part of the
problem, he says, was an atmosphere of political correctness sweeping the
school. He also came to believe the faculty valued only academic research
and didn't respect his work as a lawyer.

For the past four years, he has been on leave from Osgoode and teaching
first and third-year criminology students at U of T.

Last summer, he was quietly remarried, to a woman named Laura, who contacted
him after seeing him on TV. Surprising, he says, since he vowed he would
"never remarry." Sort of like how he has vowed to leave the law? "The fact
of the matter," says Henein, "is he loves the law."

Pubdate: Sunday, December 21, 2003
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Contact: lettertoed@thestar.com
Website: thestar.com | Toronto Star | Canada's largest daily
Author: Tracey Tyler