Marijuana activists try to 'bottleneck' courts to fight pot-related charges

An activist group is encouraging people charged with marijuana-related offences in Quebec to purposefully clog up the courts by opting for jury trials, to punish the system for prosecuting them.

Pro-legalization advocates say Ottawa’s proposed cannabis legislation is too strict

Marijuana activist Ray Turmel says there should be a moratorium on prosecuting pot-related charges until pot is legal in Canada. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

An activist group is encouraging people charged with marijuana-related offences to purposely clog up the courts, to punish the system for prosecuting them.

Quebec-based marijuana activist Ray Turmel says if the government is going to treat people like criminals for what he calls "peanut" offences, then he's going to hit back the best way he knows how.

"What I'm doing is trying to bottleneck the court system and cost them a lot of money," he says.

Let's leave the court system for the people who really need to be tried.- Ray Turmel , marijuana advocate

Turmel knows the Supreme Court's Jordan ruling, which imposes deadlines to prevent unreasonable trial delays, is already forcing judges to stay proceedings for cases as serious as murder.

He's using that to his advantage.

"Jury trials are very expensive. They take a lot of time. So now when the Jordan decision is impacting the court system in many ways, here I come to try to plug it up with marijuana cases."

Turmel is advising roughly a dozen people across Quebec to use that strategy to fight their pot-related charges.

He's also encouraging them to admit to the facts, but to fight their charges based on the 2015 Supreme Court Smith ruling, and if necessary to go as far as launching a constitutional challenge based on the landmark Terry Parker case.

The Parker case ultimately resulted in Canada creating its first formal system regulating the use of medical marijuana, after a judge found that forcing a person to choose between their health and imprisonment violated their rights.

Maxime Gauthier is charged with the production of marijuana. He says he was growing it for medicinal purposes and doesn't think he deserves to go to jail. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

One of the cases Turmel is involved in is that of Maxime Gauthier.

Gauthier was arrested in 2014 and charged with the production of marijuana.

But he describes himself as a simple gardener.

I couldn't let these guys suffer. As a good guy I just took the chance to do it.- Maxime Gauthier

"[I was] producing some medicine for sick people who really need it."

He says he was growing over 400 marijuana plants for two friends who had the necessary medical documents, but who couldn't afford to pay what it cost to buy the product from a licensed producer.

"I couldn't let these guys suffer. As a good guy I just took the chance to do it."

Gauthier says that when police swooped in on his Montreal-area warehouse in October 2014, he was treated like a member of organized crime.

"There were like 25 officers from the SWAT team with the biggest gun I have ever seen in my life. I was so scared."

Gauthier is representing himself in court and has teamed up with Turmel, but he says for him it's less about slowing down the courts, and more about fighting for his rights.

"We're in a grey zone and I'm going to fight for it," he says.

"I have to fight for my rights. I have no other choice."

Turmel hopes that through constitutional challenges, like Gauthier's, he'll eventually force the government to adapt its legislation so that marijuana is legal, plain and simple, without conditions.

"I'd like to see it just opened up. Let it be like tomatoes."

Defence lawyer says legislation is complex

Montreal defence lawyer Eric Sutton agrees the laws surrounding both medicinal and recreational marijuana could be simpler.

Defence lawyer Eric Sutton is doing what he can to delay certain marijuana-related cases until July 2018, when recreational cannabis is supposed to be legal in Canada. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

He says the Trudeau government's proposed legislation doesn't necessarily make things easier, with caps prohibiting more than 30 grams and more than four plants for recreational purposes.

"We're still sort of floundering a bit … I think it would've made sense to simply legalize it and regulate it," Sutton says.

His approach?

He doesn't see anything wrong with finding ways to postpone marijuana-related cases to protect his clients' interests, until the law is clearer.

"I'm not going to pretend that I'm rushing to bring the case to fruition when I know that there will be a much simpler answer if I can keep the case going until 2018."

But nothing has changed for the prosecution. 

A spokesperson for Quebec's director of criminal and penal prosecutions told CBC that it will continue to apply the law in force.

Do we really want to make criminals of people who use marijuana?- Eric Sutton, Montreal defence attorney

As it stands now, Ottawa's proposed legislation for the legalization of recreational marijuana is "piecemeal," according to Sutton.

He says instead of obsessing over how many grams of cannabis people possess, it would be better to put resources toward prosecuting criminals involved in harder drugs.

"I think it will be a burden on the police. I don't really believe that we're doing a great service to the community by making the process somewhat complex and almost bureaucratic."

He says legalizing marijuana isn't the same as endorsing it.

"There's this notion that you're saying as a society it's good. You're not," he says.

"You're simply saying it's there, we actually can't control it, too many people are using it. Just like alcohol, do we really want to make criminals of people who use marijuana?"

About the Author

Jaela Bernstien is a reporter based in Montreal. She's covered a wide range of news topics, ranging from criminal trials to ice age caves, and everything in between.