New Brunswick

B.C. lawyer who challenged pot laws defends 3 Saint Johners after dispensary raids

Kirk Tousaw, a Vancouver lawyer whose legal victories have helped dismantle marijuana restrictions in Canada, compares the raids on six Saint John pot dispensaries to "taking a hammer to a pebble in your shoe.

Kirk Tousaw calls raids on 6 medical marijuana dispensaries 'complete overkill'

Vancouver lawyer Kirk Tousaw, pictured speaking to CBC in 2010, is representing three individuals charged after the raids on medical marijiuana dispensaries in Saint John. (CBC)

Kirk Tousaw, a Vancouver lawyer whose legal victories have helped dismantle marijuana restrictions in Canada, compares the raids on six Saint John pot dispensaries to "taking a hammer to a pebble in your shoe."

Tousaw is representing Lance Kangos, 44, Sarah Kirbyson, 26, and Kyle Vizino, 28, of Saint John, who were among those arrested after the Jan. 24 dispensary raids.

All three are associated with the King Canna dispensary, which Kirbyson manages and where Kangos is a budtender, an employee who serves customers at an establishment where marijuana is sold.

They are all charged with possession of cannabis for the purpose of trafficking, and Vizino faces an additional charge of trafficking.

Three people associated with King Canna, pictured, including the manager and budtender, are scheduled to appear in Saint John provincial court on May 30 on charges of trafficking and possession for the purpose of trafficking cannabis. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)
Maximum penalties under the Criminal Code range from up to five years to life in prison, depending on the quantity of drugs seized.

Tousaw was part of the legal team that persuaded a Federal Court judge to strike down Canada's medical cannabis system as unduly restrictive in the Neil Allard case, a precendent-setting decision that led Canada to implement new medical marijuana regulations in August 2016.

In 2015, in the Supreme Court of Canada, Tousaw successfully argued that Owen Smith, an employee of a Victoria dispensary, be acquitted on charges of possession of cannabis and possession for purposes of trafficking.

Owen Smith, left, who baked cannabis into cookies for medical marijuana patients, was acquitted of trafficking after his case was argued in the Supreme Court of Canada by lawyer Kirk Tousaw. (Submitted by Darren Stone)
The court ruled that medical marijuana can't be restricted to dried leaves that have to be smoked. The drug can also be consumed as baked sweets, oils and tea.

Tousaw received a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013 for his advocacy work defending people charged with breaking cannabis laws.

Tousaw said he became involved with the Saint John cases through Toronto lawyer Jack Lloyd, known for representing Marc Emery, the so-called Prince of Pot.

Lloyd, Tousaw said, is also helping to "stick handle" the Saint John file.

From 'pebble in my shoe' to 12 arrests 

Lawyer Jack Lloyd, who represents Marc Emery in Toronto, is helping 'stickhandle' the Saint John file for Tousaw. (Martin Trainor/CBC)
The raids on Medicinal Grounds, BCW, HBB Medical Inc., and King Canna came five months after Chief John Bates of the Saint John police told Information Morning Saint John the force had "bigger fish to fry" than dispensaries. He pointed to "societal issues like homelessness, vagrancy, and panhandling in the uptown."

"In the big scheme of things, that's a pebble in my shoe compared to the other things we're trying to tackle as a policing organization in this city," Bates said.

After the raids, Bates said it was his belief the shops were operating illegally, "and we decided to do something about it."

Tousaw characterizes the decision to raid the shops as "completely incorrect."

In September, Chief John Bates said dispensaries weren't a top priority for Saint John police. Months later, 12 people were arrested in a series of raids on half a dozen shops. (CBC)
"Police have had the discretion of whether or not to enforce a law based on local concerns," Tousaw said. "The public doesn't want the police using their limited resources to go and lock up, cage and handcuff people whose only crime was to assist chronically and critically ill Canadians.

He said police should be going after people who cause harm, not the owners of dispensaries.

"Let's think about what happens during a police raid. Most of the people who are working in dispensaries are young people with no association whatsoever with criminal activity other than that they work in a dispensary. They get raided, it's incredibly scary and stressful, [and] you've got a stain that may impact your future for the rest of your life."

"It is just complete overkill."

Feds to legalize next year

Police searched HBB Medical Inc. on Rothesay Road, one of the six medical marijuana dispensaries raided in January. (CBC)
The raids are came just before the federal government announced in March that marijuana for recreational, as well as medicinal, purposes would be legal as of July 1, 2018.

New Brunswick's four opposition parties have suggested marijuana should be decriminalized now.

"We're going to legalize cannabis not just for medical purposes, but for recreational purposes," Tousaw said. "Why are we using the police to deal with that?"

"Saddling these 11 people ... with criminal records hurts us all," Tousaw said. "It reduces their life opportunities and their ability to contribute to our society, and it is just absolutely terrible, especially as we move to general legalization."

"Nobody is going to say this, but legalization is an acknowledgement that prohibition was wrong and harmful. It's about time that we faced up to that, took our lumps, and gave something back to the people who have been prosecuted by these bad laws."

Kangos, Kirbyson, Vizino and eight other dispensary owners and employees charged in the raids are scheduled to appear in Saint John provincial court for election and plea on May 30.