Pot users in Edmonton 420 rally protest possession charges

Cannabis advocates gathered Thursday for their annual celebration of marijuana — dubbed 420 — on the grounds of the Alberta legislature, but the mood at the courthouse in downtown Edmonton leading up to the rally was one of defiance.

'I think police have to show some greater discretion,' says Edmonton defence lawyer Brian Beresh

Donna Mackenzie, pictured with a loud hailer, leads the United Cannabis Coalition protest in front of the Edmonton courthouse Thursday ahead of a 420 rally at the legislature. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

Cannabis advocates gathered Thursday for their annual celebration of marijuana — dubbed 420 — on the grounds of the Alberta legislature, but the mood at the courthouse where they met in downtown Edmonton leading up to the rally was one of defiance.

Pro-legalization representatives say the police practice of charging users caught with small amounts of cannabis is a waste of time and resources now that the laws are set to change in a year.

"We're clogging our courtroom with something that's theoretically ... going to be legal in less than a year," said Donna Mackenzie, president of the United Cannabis Coalition. "That seems absurd to me." 
Donna Mackenzie, president of United Cannabis Coalition in Edmonton, says she uses marijuana for medicinal purposes.

People caught with even a small amount of marijuana can be still be fined up to $1,000 or sentenced to up to six months in jail for a first offence. Earlier this month, RCMP seized a single pot plant and some equipment from a home in Hanna, charging a 48-year-old woman with production and possession of marijuana.

"I think police have to show some greater discretion," Edmonton criminal defence lawyer Brian Beresh said prior to the rally.

"I know there are some who argue that would be turning your back on what is presently the law," he acknowledged. "But I think Canada has voted for change in this legislation, and I think the police should show greater discretion than they're showing.

"I think it's a waste of a valuable resource."

Edmonton lawyer Lance McClean agreed that prosecuting minor cases such as simple possession of marijuana further clogs an overtaxed justice system.

"I would suggest that probably in and amongst themselves, (they're) not a huge burden but when we're dealing with a court system that's overburdened as ours is, any reduction to the court docket is probably something that is beneficial."

In February, 40 charges in 15 criminal cases were stayed because slim resources prevented the Crown from prosecuting in a timely manner, the Crown prosecutor's office said.

Beresh said he thinks the federal government should pardon people who've been charged with possession in the past and are now strapped with criminal records.

The federal Liberal government unveiled details of their plan for regulating marijuana last week.

Edmonton police maintain they will continue to follow the current marijuana legislation until July 2018, when the new law is scheduled to go into effect.