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Supreme Court rules pot Parliament's hot potato

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OTTAWA -- There is no free-standing right to get stoned, Canada's top court
ruled yesterday. Tokers hoping for relaxed marijuana laws instead got a lump
of coal as the Supreme Court of Canada upheld 6-3 a federal law banning
possession of small amounts of pot.

"I'm bummed out, man," said David Malmo-Levine, a self-styled pot freedom
crusader in Vancouver. "It's a bit of a kick in the . . ."

Malmo-Levine, 32, and two other men failed to convince a majority of the top
judges that pot penalties are out of whack with constitutional guarantees of
fundamental justice.

The ban on possessing even tiny amounts does not violate the Charter of
Rights and Freedoms, said the court of last resort.

It also unanimously upheld the law prohibiting possession for trafficking.

It's up to Parliament to decriminalize the drug, says the 82-page ruling,
something Prime Minister Paul Martin has signalled could happen with a bill
to be reintroduced next year.

"I'm very glad to see the Supreme Court has sustained the government's
position," Martin said. "And we will be proceeding with the marijuana bill
as planned."

The bill, first proposed under Jean Chretien, would wipe out criminal
penalties -- including potential jail time and lasting records -- for those
caught with small amounts of pot.

The legislation died when Parliament was shut down last month to give Martin
a fresh start in January. It made possession of less than 15 grams of pot --
roughly 15 to 20 joints -- a minor offence punishable by fines of $100 to
$400, much like traffic tickets.

Critics said 15 grams is too much to equate with casual use.

They also questioned how police, with no equivalent of an alcohol breath
test, would assess those who drive while high.

And they warned increased pot use would play into the hands of biker gangs
and other shady suppliers.

Martin says a parliamentary committee could review the 15-gram limit and
proposed fines.

"Perhaps they should be stiffer," he said over a cup of coffee at a Montreal

The proposed pot bill did not legalize the drug, and maintained or increased
penalties for large-scale growers and traffickers.

Ottawa should act with caution, said Tony Cannavino, president of the
Canadian Professional Police Association. The group represents 54,000
rank-and-file members.

"Police officers across Canada don't have the tools and don't have the
proper training to face this legislation," he said. A national strategy to
deter drug use is needed first, he stressed.

Pubdate: Wednesday, December 24, 2003
Source: London Free Press (CN ON)
Contact: letters@lfpress.com
Website: The London Free Press
Author: Sue Bailey / Canadian Press