Canada's cannabis criminals

Liberals 'asleep at the wheel' as marijuana possession arrests violate human rights

Government insists that current laws should be obeyed as system churns out more criminals
Photo: Canada 2020

Though medical marijuana has been legal in Canada since 2001, complicated laws continue putting medical users through the ringer even today. Admittedly, some recent court victories like the Allard case ruling in B.C. now allow patients to grow medical marijuana at home and to possess up to 150 grams of dried pot. The Liberal government has said it won't appeal, which will potentially help some 38,000 licensed patients avoid unwarranted prosecution.

But there's still a long way to go before people can access their medicine without the fear of being deemed a criminal at some point. So what do Canada's cannabis criminals look like?

This second and final instalment of a series on Canada's marijuana laws talks with a veteran whose choice of medicine led him to a criminal record and then activism.

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Veterans' choice of medicine

On Jan. 14, 2008, heavily armed cops stormed Clayton Goodwin, now 39, in the parking lot of the apartment where he was living in Sarnia, Ontario, and served him a warrant to search his home. They seized 22 immature marijuana plants, 95 grams of processed pot — or "shake" — some morphine and a shotgun.

As a former artillery master bombardier and cook corporal, Goodwin had worked with the Canadian Armed Forces for nine years, and he had no criminal record at the time. He used marijuana medically, which has been legal since 2001.

"Once I got angry enough, I made friends, and friends are a wonderful thing."

Yet he ended up pleading guilty to possession of marijuana and morphine (he says the morphine wasn't his but wouldn't "rat out" the owner), along with careless storage of a shotgun.

"The conditions worsen because you are run at by guns," he said over the phone from Ottawa, with sounds of a demonstration happening in the background. As we spoke, the veteran advocacy group of which he is a member had joined a sit-in in front of the Peace Tower to denounce service delivery denials from Veterans Affairs Canada and the Blue Cross.

"Do you think it's smart to run at somebody with guns, especially someone who's a soldier (with an) operational stress injury? They killed one veteran in British Columbia like that."

Goodwin fought and was able to bring a $15,000 fine down to $1,500. He was placed on a year's probation, prohibited from possessing non-prescription medicine and ordered to take substance-abuse counselling.

A veteran who'd earned an honourable discharge, he was now a criminal because of his choice of medicine.

"I had no money, no health, I didn't know anything about activism, I didn't know people were fighting for it. I brought documentation to doctors afterwards but no one would sign to help me," Goodwin said of why he pled guilty. "I had such massive anxiety, I walked in one day and looked at (my lawyer) and said, 'It's done today.'"

'Just get me some seeds'

Goodwin had been accepted to five college programs in police foundations, where he was pursuing a career. He was also reading for children at the local library, driving the elderly to doctors' appointments, helping in food banks and "taking care of my community like people should," he said.

"And they still ran at me like I was a common criminal because of a medicine."

"It's a debilitating issue," he continued, talking about his record. "I can't visit relatives in the United States. I had aspirations of making one big rush for policing, (and) coming off of marijuana with the help of other alternatives."

Arrests for and prosecution of petty marijuana offences certainly vary from region to region.

Yet, Goodwin's experience seems to have emboldened him to take action to help others.

"Just piss a good veteran off, take his medicine away and give him a criminal record," he said of why he turned to activism. "Once I got angry enough, I made friends, and friends are a wonderful thing. And guess what, brother? Marijuana makes a lot of friends."

Goodwin is now the director of media engagement for the Veterans Accountability Commission, an Ottawa-based non-profit organization advocating for the rights of Canadian veterans. Part of that advocacy is for their right to choose medical marijuana without fear of criminalization.

That's why he's wary of the feds, who now want to investigate the cost of medical marijuana for veterans, which reached $4.3 million last year.

"But guess what, brother?" he said. "You don't got to investigate nothing. You just get me some seeds."

Criminals are poor, young and racialized

There are some options for those unlucky enough to still get pinched, particularly first-time offenders with no criminal record who have been caught with a relatively small amount of pot.

The most common is diversion, a process through which first-time offenders can avoid getting a criminal record. Usually they'll have to make an admission out of court accepting responsibility, and complete some kind of drug education program or community service.

Yet, a CBC article stated that in 2015 in Hamilton, only 20 young people were able to avoid a criminal record through the program, compared to 156 adults. Hamilton

Police Chief Glenn De Caire has nevertheless promised to continue arresting smokers even if most charges are, in fact, later dropped.

Miriam Martin, an Ottawa-based criminal defence lawyer, said arrests for and prosecution of petty marijuana offences certainly vary from region to region. Ottawa, like Hamilton, is another place where antiquated authorities "just don't reflect the changing attitudes" around the country, she said, adding that those hassled tend to be "racialized men."

"Possession of small amounts of marijuana are prosecuted in this city … and those people are almost always (minorities) — Aboriginal, Inuit and Black," she said over the phone. "Minorities and youth are targeted for no good reason on the street and then are found possessing. That's how it often arises."

Goodwin, who said he's Métis but "looks white and has blue eyes," has seen this happen to others. Last year, he witnessed the Ottawa cops' intimidation tactics at a newly opened vaping lounge called BuzzOn.

"I had so much weed on the table but they grabbed one young, brown kid," he said.

Government is 'asleep at the wheel'

Anthony Doob, professor of criminology at the University of Toronto, said the problem is the "law hasn't moved," adding that it's "going to take some time" before people see any actual change.

Martin said she believes that "if there was a clear statement in the form of legislation, practice would change as well."

Criminal lawyer Paul Lewin put it more bluntly.

"The government is asleep at the wheel," he said. "They should worry about the human rights crisis in which people who've done something which we don't deem worthy of criminal sanctions are going to jail."

An online petition calling for an "immediate stop to arrests for cannabis possession" and outlining the "pathway for legalization" has reached nearly 15,000 signatures as of print time. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has already sponsored it, according to the webpage. The deadline to sign is June 9.

There will be many more unwitting and unwilling casualties of a dying, useless war.

While Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has expressed interest in moving forward with this, at least to the media, the department's official stance is simply that legalization "is a serious, complex matter that will take time."

"There are real public health and safety risks associated with marijuana use," wrote Ian McLeod, senior adviser, media relations for the department of justice, in an email. "Until Parliament has enacted new legislation and new rules are in place to ensure that marijuana is carefully regulated, current laws remain in force and should be obeyed."

Liberal MP Bill Blair, the former Toronto police chief who's now leading the task force researching the way to legalize weed, staunchly agrees, insisting the law should be followed and dismissing the idea of granting pardons.

But he's out of order, said Lewin.

"He's not a cop enforcing the law. He's a legislator. 'The law is the law' is not an answer for him to give."

Adult decisions

All evidence points to thousands of more arrests before the Trudeau government finally makes good on its word to legalize marijuana.

Despite the end of the pot war — for all intents and purposes, at least — more people will be raided, staring down the barrels of cops' guns, being criminalized and humiliated in front of friends and family simply for consuming a plant that is on its way to becoming legal and poses virtually no danger to our social fabric.

Goodwin said that though legalization needs to be "heavily researched," criminalizing adults over their choice of medicine assumes them irresponsible in the first place.

"There is a certain level of responsibility to take care of society, whether you're a medical marijuana patient or recreational (user)," he said. "So we gotta be sensible. It's still a medicine. I don't leave my medicine cabinet unlocked."

Until a pardon system or marijuana legalization or decriminalization become a reality, there will be many more unwitting and unwilling casualties of a dying, useless war.

But "why should (anyone) be the last person shot in the war?" Lewin asked rhetorically. "No one should be the last person shot in the drug war."

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