Marijuana legalization: My trip from organized religion to cannabis convert

If legalization has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t leave it up to politicians to solve problems with our criminal laws

Welcome to the world of legalized pot. I’ve been working in the trenches helping to spur changes to morality laws for more than 15 years. I’m not a pot smoker and when I started out I was not financially invested in pot.

I was raised deeply immersed in religion on a farm north of Toronto. I’d always volunteered for good causes, but mostly with the local congregations. Meeting Osgoode Hall law professor Alan Young changed my views on morality. 

I first worked for Alan gathering permissions for the book he was writing – Justice Defiled: Perverts, Potheads, Serial Killers & Lawyers. We were also dating. His insights into classical music, painters, philosophers and criminal law were rocking my world. 

I was disillusioned with organized religion, but I still felt a deep inner sense of morality. Though Alan talked about pot, prostitution and civil disobedience and scorned certain major organized religions, I felt he had a deep sense of morality, too. 

After a dinner break one night, Alan got a call: the Toronto Compassion Club had been raided by police. On his way out the door, he tossed the phone book at me and said, “Call the media.” And so began my years-long efforts on behalf of Alan’s pro bono work and his clients’ causes.

The first call I made was to the Globe and Mail. I related to Campbell Clark, who already knew of Alan’s work, why it was a travesty that these nice young men were in jail for delivering pot to AIDS and cancer patients. And wasn’t it suspicious that the raid came at the time that they were all named as plaintiffs in Alan’s constitutional challenge to Canada’s medical marijuana laws?

The next day, a number of reporters were camped out in front of Old City Hall, waiting to get shots of Warren Hitzig, Dom Cramer and Zack Naftolin.

When the boys were finally released, they were feeling down after a night in a jail cell. They were concerned their parents and friends would be disappointed. I presented to them two futures: they could slink out the back door, knowing that their hearts had been pure and they were working for a good cause, and carry the burden of being misunderstood by friends and family or they could walk out the front door. They emerged on the front steps to the cheers of their supporters, defiant and pumping their fists.

Alan and I eventually got married and I got to know a number of productive and interesting people who suffered immensely from the intrusiveness and violence of laws because of the lifestyle choices. I held down the home front while Alan launched challenges to pot and prostitution laws and helped scores of people caught up in morality laws.

He channelled his pro bono work through Osgoode Hall Law School’s Innocence Project and relied on students who came and went. I “worked the media,” and became a sounding board and organizer for some of Alan’s clients and witnesses who were hamstrung in their naive belief that if only government officials “understood” the human carnage of bad laws, they would actually do something about it. They had wasted too much energy speaking privately to mostly two-faced politicians rather than bringing their reasoned thoughts to the sphere of democratic debate. I encouraged them to speak out.

I understood the messages that resonated with the so-called moral majority, about drugs, prostitution and the perceived comforting aura of benign government benevolence. I tested these messages in the schoolyard with moms, dads and grandmas while our son played with his classmates. Especially helpful was a prim and proper Greek grandma who would approach me every time Alan was quoted in the Globe. “Your husband is so smart!” she would often say. Alan was just bringing common sense to law and government spin that for decades had us believing ridiculous ideas about drug use based on falsehoods.

I had a similar story.

In 1971, the Toronto Sun covered news of my mother’s stabbing in her Rochdale apartment at Bloor and Huron. But the actual court transcripts tell a different story. My mom was murdered by someone she knew during an argument. The police, media, politicians and members of major churches, all took advantage of the opportunity to twist the story to fit their War on Drugs narrative.

As I celebrate the coming legalization and what I hope is the end of Reefer Madness, I wonder about the families that have been swayed by government propaganda and accepted the criminalization of their loved ones for what is completely normal behaviour, especially in times of personal crisis or the experimental period of youth.

Alan retired from Osgoode Hall Law School in July and has passed on the Innocence Project to an exceptionally talented and passionate young lawyer, Bhavan Sodhi, who in a few short months has created a network of Innocence Project groups at universities across Canada. 

If legalization has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t leave criminal law to politicians. 

We must amplify the voices of those harmed by government laws and ineptitude, whether you’re a criminal lawyer, activist, journalist or just a concerned citizen. | @nowtoronto

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