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Canada: Police crack down on marijuana users

 

Tories reverse Liberal pot policy

Police chiefs welcome tough stance

 

Apr. 3, 2006

PETER EDWARDS

STAFF REPORTER

Toronto Star

 

Brian Fitzpatrick has openly used marijuana for years to control his epilepsy, and police have never bothered him.

 

All that has changed.

 

Police forces across the GTA (Greater Toronto area), taking their cue from the new federal Conservative government, are again cracking down on the simple possession of marijuana.

 

Before the Liberals lost the January election, legislation was in the works to make possession of small amounts of pot a minor offence, much like a parking ticket. That prompted police forces to ease up on marijuana users.

 

But things are different today, and Fitzpatrick, 39, of Ajax, is caught in the middle.

 

York University law professor Alan Young says such pot busts have increased over the past months, with word that the Conservative government won't resurrect Liberal efforts to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana.

 

Fitzpatrick's legal problems began March 26, as he felt a seizure coming on. He called an ambulance, and began self-medicating with cannabis-based butter.

 

Ambulance workers at his home noticed the potent butter, called police, and soon Fitzpatrick's cannabis stock was gone and he was looking for a lawyer.

 

The former Liberal government talked of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot, treating possession of less than 15 grams of pot as a minor offence punishable by fines of $100 to $400.

 

"I seem to be getting more calls from people who've been arrested for simple possession," Young said.

 

"They're (police) trying to flex their muscles and say the law's still vibrant," Young said.

 

Peel criminal lawyer Gary Batasar agreed that police seem to be taking a get-tough approach to all pot crimes, including simple possession.

 

"There's no doubt that they're not being let off with too much," Batasar said.

 

Their comments this week came three weeks after a spokesman for Justice Minister Vic Toews announced that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Tories have no plans to loosen marijuana laws.

 

"It's a green light for police to go ahead with stricter law enforcement, if they so want," Young said. "They're doing it with much more vigour than before, no doubt about it."

 

"They're charging more people and they're more proactive on the grow-ops," Young continued. "They've done a real campaign to show grow-ops as the 11th Biblical plague."

 

Toews' spokesman, Mike Storeshaw, said earlier this month it was clear during the election race that the party had no intention of moving forward on the decriminalization bill.

 

Meanwhile, local police chiefs say they were against decriminalization of marijuana before the Tories took power, and they feel the same way now.

 

"I don't anticipate that our organization will change its approach," said York Regional Police Chief Armand La Barge.

 

"We continue to enforce it ... Our approach has been consistent throughout."

 

La Barge said he welcomed the announcement from Toews' office that simple possession won't be decriminalized in the new future.

 

"That's something that I was particularly happy to hear."

 

La Barge said relaxing drug laws sends the wrong message to the public, and that York police have been "waging a war" for some time against marijuana grow operations in houses, run by organized crime groups.

 

Marijuana grown in York Region, in "nice suburban homes," is routinely exported to the U.S. and swapped for guns and other drugs, La Barge said.

 

"They are multi-million-dollar criminal operations," La Barge said.

 

Durham police Chief Vernon White said he doubts any police chief in the country wants youths to have criminal records for a first case of possession of a small amount of marijuana.

 

Most convictions for possession of marijuana today began with charges of possession for the purposes of trafficking, and then were reduced because of a guilty plea, White said.

 

"The reality is very few people these days are charged with simple possession of marijuana," White said.

 

However, he said that many adults don't realize that pot today is often up to six times more potent than during the 1970s and early 1980s.

 

"It's not the same drug that's around today as in 1980," White said, adding that there's a disturbing new practice on the West Coast of spraying marijuana with highly potent and addictive crystal meth.

 

Toronto pot activist Mark Stupak said he and fellow marijuana activists are in a daze about what's going on with enforcement of pot laws, after the federal government change.

 

"Everybody's confused, basically," he said.

 

Stupak said police seem to be clamping down on marijuana seed operations, noting the bust of the Heaven's Stairway company in Ottawa, which has operated openly since 1998 and is listed on Quebec's business registry.

 

Heaven's Stairway sold marijuana seeds over the Internet, and until recently, seed distributors have functioned in a "cloud of legality," Stupak said, but that seems to be changing.

 

On the West Coast, Marc Emery, described as the "King of Pot" and founder of the B.C. Marijuana Party, is battling extradition and the threat of decades in prison for charges of conspiring to manufacture and distribute marijuana seeds and to engage in money laundering.

 

In the Toronto area, marijuana activists say many local seed sellers have stopped shipping to the United States, for fear of being charged like Emery.

 

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald said he has lost his appetite, as he worries about more epileptic seizures, the loss of his pot and the stress of his court case on May 5.

 

"I've never felt this way before in my life," Fitzpatrick says.

 

With files from The Star's Tonda MacCharles.

 

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