updated 12/23/2003 11:47:09 AM ET 2003-12-23T16:47:09

Canada’s top court ruled Tuesday to keep marijuana possession illegal, dealing a blow to activists who had argued the drug causes no serious harm.

In a 6-3 decision spanning 400 pages, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that trafficking and possession, even in small amounts, would remain a criminal offense. The judgment prompted praise from law enforcement groups and disappointment from proponents of legalization.

“My huge patriotism may slowly be dissipating. I have a lot of faith in my country, in freedom and justice, but it doesn’t seem like we have a whole lot of that left,” said Dominic Kramer, a marijuana activist who runs a store that sells hemp products and paraphernalia in Toronto.

Tony Cannavino, president of the Canadian Police Association, welcomed the decision but expressed concern over a proposed bill by Prime Minister Paul Martin that would soften penalties for pot possession. He said marijuana growing seemed to be on the rise.

“We have more and more ‘grow ops’ across the country,” he told reporters in Ottawa. “You wouldn’t see that 10 years ago.”

Constitutional rights questioned
A key question in the Supreme Court decision was whether Parliament has the constitutional right to punish marijuana possession, given the lack of proven serious harms from its use.

The high court examined three cases involving two pot activists and one man who was caught smoking. All three failed to persuade lower courts that the pot law is unconstitutional.

Defendant David Malmo-Levine took a hit of hash last May before arguing his case in person at the high court while dressed head-to-toe in clothes made of hemp cloth. He once ran the Harm Reduction Club, a non-profit cooperative in Vancouver that offered advice on safe marijuana use while supplying it to some 1,800 members.

Another case centered on Christopher Clay, who ran the Hemp Nation in London, Ontario, a store he started with a government loan. He sold marijuana seeds and seedlings in a deliberate challenge to the law.

Last week Martin said he planned to reintroduce a bill, first proposed under former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, that would wipe out potential jail time and criminal records for those convicted of marijuana possession.

The bill did not legalize the drug, and maintained or increased already stiff penalties for large-scale growers and traffickers. It made possession of less than 15 grams of pot a minor offense punishable by fines of $100 to $400, much like traffic tickets.

Critics said 15 grams, the equivalent of roughly 15 to 20 joints, was too much to equate with casual use.

But the legislation died when Parliament adjourned last month to give Martin a fresh start in January.

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