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Hamilton Liberal forum debates the dope on legalization

Panelists agree new Harper law should go up in smoke

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

They didn’t see eye-to-eye on Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s call for outright legalization, but panelists at a “community dialogue” on marijuana were unanimous in condemning Canada’s current laws for needlessly putting pot smokers in jail.

Hamilton criminal lawyer Beth Bromberg, author Mark Coakley and pot activist Alison Myrden also all agreed Ontario’s system of liquor controls offers a model for trying to keep weed out of the hands of minors if it is legalized.

Bromberg said she isn’t an advocate for legalization, but new federal legislation imposing mandatory jail terms for growing and selling marijuana doesn’t make sense because it removes judicial discretion.

She said the Safe Streets and Communities Act no longer lets a judge consider a person’s age or personal history, and treats spouses who were aware of their partners’ drug activity as criminals even if they disapproved of it.

A university student found with six “baby pot plants” growing in his dorm closet meanwhile faces a mandatory nine months in jail – six months for the plants and an extra three months for growing them in a rental unit, considered an “aggravating factor.”

Bromberg said the law is repeating the “failed experiment” with more incarceration south of the border and suggested Canada’s falling crime rates leave only longer sentences as a way for the Harper government to justify building more prisons.

“I think it’s a terrible mistake to take away that discretion because it makes for, I think, a very unfair and unkind society,” she told the forum, hosted by the West Hamilton Ancaster Dundas Liberal Riding Association.

“You get politicians from the States saying, ‘The studies show we were wrong. Why are you doing what we did wrong now?’”

Myrden, a former corrections officer who has been prescribed marijuana since 1994 to treat chronic pain from multiple sclerosis, said she favours eventually legalizing and regulating all drugs, calling their use a health issue to be tackled through education.

A spokesperson for U.S.-based Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, she said in her case marijuana replaced failed treatments with heroin, morphine and cocaine that led doctors to predict she’d be spoon fed in a nursing home by the time she turned 40.

Now 50 and still able to function thanks to pot, Myrden said the goal of Canada’s laws should be harm reduction, keeping drugs off the streets and ensuring legalization occurs responsibly.

She said it makes sense to start with marijuana because it’s been used as a medicine for thousands of years and more than half of Canadians support it as a “social relaxant.”

“1.5 million Canadians have criminal records for possession of cannabis and over 40,000 are arrested yearly for this issue,” the Toronto resident said. “Does this make sense to you?”

Coakley, whose new book Hidden Harvest looks at how a former Molson’s beer plant in Barrie, Ontario became Canada’s biggest illegal grow-op, called the war on drugs a “cruel failure” that has only enriched organized crime.

He said the existing laws mostly hurt low-end users, especially those who are poor or visible minorities, and breed disrespect for police who are caught in the middle.

“There’s billions in taxes wasted, huge amounts of money on prison, police, all this stuff,” Coakley said.

“I really applaud the Liberal Party of Canada for having the guts to say, ‘Everybody knows the emperor has no clothes, but we’re going to be the first to say the emperor has no clothes.’”

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