Marijuana misunderstanding in Coquitlam results in not guilty ruling

Chinese immigrant believed operation was legal. In dismissing charges, judged ruled her belief was honestly held

A 36-year-old Chinese immigrant was found not guilty of charges of growing marijuana for the purpose of trafficking because she believed the operation was a legal medical grow op.

It turned out the Coquitlam home where she was arrested was producing up to $1 million of marijuana, according to evidence presented at her trial last month in Port Coquitlam provincial court.

At the time of her arrest on Nov. 15, 2017, Gui Nv Ma Ma told Coquitlam RCMP she was working for a legal operation and had seen the licence. But the only licence police could find was for a different property, a different owner and was three years out of date, having expired in 2014. As well, it was for an address in Abbotsford, not Coquitlam, and was for just 171 plants while the haul seized by Coquitlam RCMP was 1,357 plants weighing a total of 137 kg and with a value of between $500,000 to $1 million, according to an expert.

Still, Ma said she believed the operation to be legitimate and had been working there for several months in 2017, first as a house cleaner, later as a live-in caretaker while the owner went to China for three weeks.

Her defence argued that Ma couldn’t read English and therefore believed the grow op was legitimate, a statement accepted by Judge R.P. McQuillan, who stated in the ruling: “Upon a consideration of the totality of the evidence, I find that Ms. Ma’s belief that she was working at a legal marijuana grow operation was an honestly held belief."

Ma was enticed to work in the home at 2236 Monashee Crt., Coquitlam first as a house cleaner at $200 a day and later to look after the grow operation while the owner visited for China in November 2017. Because the plants had to be watered and tended ever day, Ma moved into the home with her mother.

When she was arrested, Ma was actively harvesting marijuana, according to the Crown.

To rule Ma not guilty, however, the judge had to consider further factors, including her credibility and whether she honestly believed that the production of marijuana at the home was legal. On the other hand, if Ma knew what she was dong was illegal or was wilfully blind or reckless in her belief that the marijuana grow op was legal, she could still be found guilty.

“In this case, the court is required to consider the distinction between a mistake of law and a mistake of fact,” the judgement states. "The distinction is important because a mistake of law which was made by an accused person does not give rise to a defence to a criminal charge. Conversely, a mistake of fact by an accused person may give rise to a defence to the charge."

The judge found that Ma was an “unsophisticated, relatively new immigrant who spoke and read no English.” Ma was neither wilfully blind nor ignorant of the law but genuinely believed the grow op was legal, having been assured by a friend it was a legal operation, assurances that were corroborated by the employer, who showed her what she understood to be a valid licence.

In dismissing the charges, McQuillan stated: “For the reasons described above, I have found that her mistake as to the legality was one which was honestly held.”

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