Toronto

Marijuana law challenge denied by Ont. court

An Ontario judge has thrown out a legal challenge that claimed Canada's marijuana laws violate the freedom of religion provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

A judge has thrown out a legal challenge that claimed Canada's marijuana laws violate the freedom of religion provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The challenge was brought by two Toronto men — Peter Styrsky and Shahrooz Kharaghani — who are reverends in a group called the Church of the Universe. 

The men allegedly sold pot to undercover police officers in 2006. They are facing charges of marijuana trafficking and their case is due back in court Feb. 21. The amount of pot sold was small and the officers buying it were posing as members of the church.

The church uses the drug as a sacrament and argues the law infringes on their freedom of religion rights under the charter.

Prosecutors, however, had argued that allowing the church's application would effectively legalize marijuana, as others facing drug charges would claim a religious right as well.

In a decision released Monday, Justice Thea Herman of Ontario's Superior Court found that the church deserves protection under the charter as a religious group, even though some "may view the beliefs of the applicants and other members of the Church of the Universe as absurd."

However, she ruled that Section 1 of the charter poses a reasonable limit on that religious freedom, particularly when it comes to trafficking the drug. She ruled that distributing marijuana is not an activity that deserves protection as a religious freedom.

Trafficking not a 'religious act'

"I do not accept that providing cannabis to people in the basement … was a religious act," she wrote. "They may well believe that providing [marijuana] to others is a good thing to do. That does not, however, transform its distribution into a religious belief or practice."

She also ruled that providing a legal exemption for those who use marijuana for religious purposes is "not feasible" due to "the difficulties in identifying both the religious user and the religious use of cannabis.

"The proposed institution of a system of state inquiries into people's religious beliefs has the potential to undermine the value we place on freedom of religion rather than promote it."

Styrsky said he is considering an appeal of Monday's decision. 

"I think the judge said that we do have the right to use it. She just didn't know how to implement it for us," said Styrsky.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed an application from church founders Walter Tucker and Michael Baldasaro for leave to appeal their 2007 marijuana trafficking convictions.

On its website, the church refers to marijuana as God's "Tree of Life" and that God's children have a right to use it as a sacrament in "their lives and worship."

"Church members are encouraged to surround themselves with the holy Tree of Life, not just inhaling it, but wearing it, growing it, writing on it, eating it, etc.," the site reads.

With files from The Canadian Press

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