Ontario police are in a fog over pot laws
By COLIN FREEZE
From Friday's Globe and Mail
The marijuana-possession law is such a befuddling mess that Ontario police chiefs threw up their hands yesterday and told their officers to cease charging anyone with the country's most common drug offence.
In statements that at times read as if they were dictated through gritted teeth, the province's police chiefs called upon the federal government to get its act together and quickly clarify whether possessing less than 30 grams of marijuana remains a Criminal Code offence.
"While the federal government has been unduly preoccupied with the introduction of legislation to decriminalize the simple possession of marijuana, police officers in Ontario are currently in a position of uncertainty with regard to whether simple possession of marijuana is an offence at all," said Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino in a statement.
Representatives of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police said they were similarly baffled, and stated that it is not in the interest of public safety to provide "safe havens" from prosecution for simple possession of marijuana.
Marijuana advocates say the reality of the law is as cut and dried as the product -- a series of recent court decisions has effectively obliterated marijuana-possession laws in Ontario. Judges no longer convict anyone of the offence. Thus, possessing small amounts of pot is legal.
But senior Justice Department officials called this state of affairs "highly undesirable." They are seeking to appeal recent rulings and reinstate the prohibition.
The federal government has introduced a bill that would replace the criminal charge with fines. But the legislation has yet to pass Parliament, and it may not do so soon.
Amid the legal confusion, the best interim measure Ontario police chiefs can come up with is to tell their officers to use their judgment. The chiefs said that officers should confiscate small amounts of pot and document such seizures in case the offence becomes clearly illegal again and charges can be laid.
Robin Ellins, owner of the Friendly Stranger marijuana-paraphernalia store in downtown Toronto, called that policy "ludicrous."
"It's kind of hypocritical. You either don't deal with it or you do deal with it."
In interviews, defence lawyers suggested yesterday that there is no longer any basis in Ontario law for police to seize small amounts of pot, and added the people might consider suing officers who do so.
Although 11 million Ontarians live in a climate of de facto legalization, the situation could be reversed by the courts at any moment, and what could happen outside the province could depend on where you live.
For example, Vancouver police said that the simple marijuana-possession law has become such a low priority it has almost ceased to exist. Yet, representatives of the RCMP and municipal police forces -- including those of Winnipeg, Halifax, Montreal, Calgary and Saskatoon -- said yesterday that as far as they know, the law is on the books and they will enforce it.
Some police chiefs expressed sympathy for the plight of their Ontario colleagues. "I don't blame them," said Calgary Police Chief Jack Beaton.
"It's their courts, and I would be saying the same thing if this was our court rulings here in Alberta."
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