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Cafe Politics: Marijuana crusader John Conroy discusses the future of pot in Canada

Lawyer discusses the ramifications of Wednesday's landmark court ruling that struck down marijuana law and puts the onus on federal government to fix it.

The interior of a  medical marijuana grow operation in the Fraser Valley.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro File

The interior of a medical marijuana grow operation in the Fraser Valley.

The landmark ruling this week by a Federal Court judge will force the federal government to fix the medical marijuana law found to be unconstitutional, says the lead lawyer on the court case.

Judge Michael Phelan ruled Wednesday that the medical marijuana regulations introduced by the Conservative government in 2013, banning medical pot users from growing their own plants as they were previously allowed to do, violated the constitutional rights of those who prefer to grow their own because it was cheaper than buying from a licenced producer.

The judge struck down the medical marijuana regulations but gave the federal government six months to craft new legislation.

Lawyer John Conroy, who represented the four B.C. plaintiffs who won their case, says the ruling gives the government an opportunity to also look at the issue of cannabis dispensaries.

Lawyer John Conroy speaks outside B.C. Supreme Court in August 2005.

Jeff Hodson/Metro File

Lawyer John Conroy speaks outside B.C. Supreme Court in August 2005.

“This is their opportunity to change the regulations but deal with dispensaries as well,” explains Conroy, 68, who has been fighting Canada's marijuana laws for almost 40 years – he was a founder in 1978 of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws in Canada.

“We've had (pot) compassion clubs and dispensaries in Vancouver going on 20 years,” he points out. “Do we have a fallout in terms of medical use? No, the evidence is virtually non-existent.”

The proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries in Vancouver – now more than 150, compared to about 20 before the Conservative government banned patients from growing their own pot – shows users “voted with their feet” and don't like buying the more expensive commercially grown pot, Conroy says

He also argues that cannabis should not be classified as an illegal drug but instead should be regulated as a natural health care product.

Conroy points out the federal government under new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has promised to legalize marijuana, could do so today with the stroke of a pen.

“Mr. Trudeau's government could simply pass an order-in-council by cabinet, removing cannabis from Schedule 2 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The minute the government did that, arguably the natural health care producers regulations would cover cannabis for medical purposes.”

The federal government, he adds, needs to discuss with provincial governments and municipalities how to bring in reasonable measures to regulate marijuana, including how to dispense it.

(Already two drug store chains have suggested their pharmacies would be able to dispense pot and provide advice once the drug is legalized. There has also been discussion about government liquor stores selling pot, once it's legal.)

Whatever regime of distribution is chosen by government will be “better than prohibition, which drives it underground and drives organized crime,” Conroys says.

“You need to remember,” he adds, “that doctors prescribe all sorts of drugs that kill people. We have a serious problem in relation to opiates. And when they cut those people off, they go to the streets and end up dying from overdoses of fentanyl.”

Cannabis is not a drug that kills people like alcohol and tobacco, he says.

“There's no lethal dose of cannabis. Sure, you can take too much, especially edibles, and feel uncomfortable. But you can't die from it.”

Wednesday's ruling also continues an injunction the judge granted last year, allowing medical marijuana users to continue growing their own plants.

That affects about 28,000 Canadians who had been granted Health Canada exemptions to possess and grow their own medical marijuana before the new regulations were enacted in 2013.

But Conroy points out that there are now roughly 40,000 people in Canada who have an exemption to legally possess pot but no new exemptions on growing pot have been issued since 2013.

Currently, medical marijuana users are allowed to possess a maximum of 30 times the daily amount identified by their health-care practitioner, or 150 grams, whichever is less. There are 28 grams in an ounce of pot.

Conroy says when the case was heard last year, the Conservative government's expert witnesses on the risks of marijuana cultivation – Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis and RCMP Cpl. Shane Holmquist – were found to be so biased against pot that their evidence was deemed unreliable by the judge.

“The problems that the government witnesses focused on were illegal [marijuana grow] operations – operations that cut corners, that didn't get inspected properly, that didn't make sure it was safe for them, their neighbours and other people in the premises,” he says.

“It's not that complicated to have a legal regime. You don't need to have a huge team of inspectors to go in and inspect everybody's premises constantly. You have municipalities and cities that have inspectors who check for all sorts of things, so there's no need to reinvent things in order to reasonably regulate the production of cannabis.”

Ultimately, he adds, the prohibition law that criminalized pot in 1923 -- Canada's laws spells it marihuana, a phonetic version of the Mexican pronunciation – never worked.

“Cannabis is the most popular illicit drug,” Conroy says.