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Ottawa stays pot charges in 4,000 cases

By Hempology | December 9, 2003

At same time, rules changed to improve patients’ access to pot

From The Globe And Mail, December 9th, 2003

By Kim Lunman

Ottawa is making it a green Christmas for 4,000 people – it plans to stay thousands of charges of pot possession as a result of legal battles over medicinal marijuana.

The decision will apply to every person in Canada charged with possession of marijuana between July 31, 2001, and Oct. 7, 2003, Justice Department spokeswoman Pascale Boulay said yesterday.

The Justice Department intends to cease prosecutions on the cases because of an Ontario court ruling in 2000 that found medicinal-marijuana users had the right to possess less than 30 grams of pot. The judge delayed that ruling’s effect for one year in the hope the federal government would introduce a medicinal-marijuana law.

But the government did not. Instead, the cabinet issued regulations for access to medicinal marijuana one day before the yearlong grace period ended 2001.The Ontario ruling created a legal loophole, effectively invalidating Canada’s marijuana possession law as unconstitutional because it failed to provide an exemption for medical use.

“We estimate there are about 4,000 pending files,” Ms. Boulay said. However, she said that criminal charges of marijuana possession will still be prosecuted today as a result of the government’s announcement yesterday that it will not appeal the medicinal-marijuana case to the Supreme Court.

“It still constitutes an offence and [anyone caught with marijuana] would face charges.” The federal government recently introduced legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Possession of marijuana now carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

The decision not to proceed with 4,000 possession prosecutions follows Health Canada’s announcement yesterday that it would not appeal an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling in October that allows ill people to grow their own marijuana supply or to obtain it from designated growers.

Some police forces had virtually stopped enforcing the possession law after the initial ruling threw its constitutionality into question.

Last January, a Windsor judge cleared a 16-year-old on the grounds the federal pot-possession laws were no longer valid.

Yesterday, Health Minister Anne McLellan said the government would amend the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations to provide reasonable access to a legal source of marijuana for medical purposes.

“The amendments announced today will ensure that Canadians who suffer from serious medical conditions for whom conventional therapies have not been successful will have reasonable access to a legal source of marijuana,” she said.

But the people at the centre of the court case are upset the government will continue to strictly limit local growing operations, forcing patients to obtain government pot, which they consider inferior and overpriced.

“I’ve got mixed feelings about it,” said Jari Dvorak, a 62-year-old medicinal-marijuana user in Toronto who uses the drug to alleviate symptoms of HIV. “They seem to be half-hearted about the program.”

Mr. Dvorak is among 697 patients in Canada authorized by the government to use medicinal marijuana. He is also among 11 patients to take Ottawa to court over the program’s lack of access.

The lawyer representing the patients in the case, Alan Young, also had concerns about whether the government would ensure access to medicinal marijuana.

“All I’ve seen is crisis public-policy management,” he said. Under the new rules, it will be acceptable for a patient to pay his or her supplier, and the price is left for them to negotiate. But the rules will continue to prevent a grower from supplying more than a single patient, and to prevent more than three patients from cultivating together.

The new regulation contains some minor changes in the procedure for obtaining approval for marijuana access. One class of patients, which had previously required signatures from two medical specialists, will now require only one signature. Currently there is little scientific evidence that pot has therapeutic benefits, but many patients say it helps them deal with nausea, pain and lack of appetite.

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