The court system’s bumpy road to marijuana legalization
According to the Liberal government's plan, the use of marijuana – whether it's for medical use or recreational – will be legal in Canada as of July 2018. But the road to legalization hasn’t always been smooth.
Lawyer Kirk Tousaw says since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement in 2015, about 50,000 Canada have been arrested on cannabis possession charges.
Tousaw represents several of those clients in the Maritimes, and believes the increase in arrests is starting to have a ripple effect.
“When you add in busy courtrooms, judicial time, the Crown prosecutor's time, the sheriffs that have to work in the courtrooms, the expense and impact on the criminal justice system is really staggering,” Tousaw says.
One of Tousaw’s clients is Chris Enns, who operates a medical cannabis dispensary. After three police raids over four years, he's facing 10 charges relating to possession for trafficking. Some of the charges date back to 2013.
“Not only are we still going through the issues, but we have 30 days of trial booked for February, we have 10 days for constitutional challenge booked in December, and we have over a week of hearings booked for November,” Enns says.
Sean Murray was also arrested for cannabis possesion. He says when he first asked for a prescription to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder, his physician refused. So he decided to grow it himself and sell it to a few other people.
That decision resulted in Murray being arrested twice for possession and trafficking.
“I stood up for myself,” he says. “I did what had to be done to maintain my mental well-being.”
Murray is currently on five months house arrest, but now has legal access to cannabis. Through the court process, an advocate helped him get a medical exemption.
But still, Murray says it's more expensive and not covered under his social assistance.
“There's a lot of people in my situation, but I just happen to be under house arrest now because of what's happened,” he says.
Dalhousie University law professor Archie Kaiser says there's the question of whether to continue to prosecute people charged with cannabis crimes under existing legislation.
“We are in kind of a period of evolution. But on the other hand, we still must observe the law as it stands right now,” Kaiser says. “There has to be some serious reflection by the federal government as to what to do with everybody who's basically in the pipeline.”
The Public Prosecution Service of Canada, which handles cannabis offences, denied CTV News’s request for an interview. But a spokesperson did say that public prosecutors can exercise discretion when it comes to initiating and prosecuting cannabis cases. The office also would not speak to the impending legislation.
Archie Kaiser sees a challenge in the fact that the proposed law will still result in criminal convictions.
“There remains a label of criminality for those Canadians, and I think it is highly problematic that that would continue following the legalization of cannabis,” he says.
Under the proposed law, what Sean Murray did would still be a crime.
“Have it decriminalized,” says Murray. “Stop the ridiculous arrests of patients. I don't understand it.”
Murray says he's not sure legalization as it stands now will help him get the access he needs in the situation he's in.
With files from CTV Atlantic’s Heidi Petracek.