Man convicted for dispensary pot buy but given absolute discharge

People who buy pot from medical marijuana dispensaries can still be charged criminally, even though the City of Victoria has implemented regulations for the storefronts, warns a local defence lawyer.

Last month, Chantelle Sutton represented a Victoria man who bought marijuana at a local dispensary in August 2015. After a brief trial, Leslie Ian Hall was convicted of possessing marijuana.

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But Hall was handed an absolute discharge when the judge found Hall honestly believed he could legally buy marijuana with a doctor’s prescription and his membership with the Vancouver Island Compassion Society.

The court is sympathetic to the “current state of affairs where businesses may be acting contrary to the law and, in doing so, lull some customers into thinking they are acting according to law,” Victoria provincial court Judge Christine Lowe said at Hall’s sentencing on Sept. 16.

What Hall, 53, didn’t know is that the law requires individuals to apply to Health Canada for an exemption to possess medical marijuana.

“This case is a warning to people — even though the dispensaries appear to be operating a legal, legitimate business, it’s an individual’s responsibility to get the proper certification from Health Canada,” said Sutton.

“Judge Lowe’s decision shows ignorance of the law is not a defence, so, therefore, my client was guilty. But in the circumstances, she didn’t impose any punishment.”

Victoria police are still selectively prosecuting people for possession of marijuana and Crown prosecutors are still approving charges and taking them to trial, said Sutton. “You can be charged. And you will have to retain a lawyer, run a trial and face other financial repercussions.”

During the hour-long trial, court heard that Hall was arrested on Aug. 9, 2015, outside the B.C. legislature for being intoxicated in a public place. During the arrest, a 15-gram bag of marijuana fell to the ground. Hall testified that he told the arresting officer, Const. Callum Campbell, he had a licence for marijuana. The officer advised Hall that he would be charged with possession.

Hall, who has been diagnosed with hepatitis C, testified that a doctor at the Cool Aid Medical Clinic had given him a prescription for medical marijuana. Prescription in hand, he went to the compassion society and told them he wanted marijuana to help increase his appetite. He was given a membership card with his photo on it.

“For me, it’s a membership to a dispensary, which is a storefront sanctioned by the city,” Hall testified. “I thought it was legalized. I had my doctor’s prescription, which got me my membership and it was all good.”

During final submissions, Sutton told the court that drug trafficking is going on in plain view, but the traffickers are not being prosecuted. Instead, people who buy marijuana are being charged with possession.

“It’s quite clear police are aware this is going on. The businesses are in existence and police are not doing anything about it,” said Sutton.

A statement from the Public Prosecution Service of Canada said cannabis-related offences in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act have not been amended and continue to be in force. Their records show charges for these offences have declined from 18,470 in 2012-2013 to 13,343 in 2015-2016.

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