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A young marijuana plant, May 27, 2003. (Darryl James/ The Globe and Mail/Darryl James/ The Globe and Mail)
A young marijuana plant, May 27, 2003. (Darryl James/ The Globe and Mail/Darryl James/ The Globe and Mail)

As smoke clears, Tories, Liberals react to pot ruling Add to ...

A day after an Ontario court stayed charges of growing and possessing marijuana against him, Matthew Mernagh wasted no time exercising his newly acquired freedom to consume medicinal cannabis, setting some seeds germinating in a paper towel and paying a visit to Vapour Central in downtown Toronto.

The same ruling that granted Mr. Mernagh, who suffers from seizures and fibromyalgia, the right to use the drug to manage his symptoms also struck down the government's medicinal marijuana program - arguing it was too difficult for patients to obtain the necessary licence to use cannabis legally - and ruled the country's laws against possessing and growing the drug unconstitutional.

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"It's unbelievable. It feels like we won the Stanley Cup and brought it home," said Mr. Mernagh, 37, as he celebrated with supporters. "We're all just sitting here, awestruck."

But while he was free to partake immediately, the rest of the ruling will not come into effect for three months, leaving other medicinal users without licences to wait and see whether the government would appeal the ruling or re-tool the program.

Previous court decisions on the subject have either faced appeal or forced the government to change the law to help medicinal users obtain cannabis.

On Wednesday, civil servants refused to tip their hands as to which path they would follow this time. Political parties vying for power, however, suggested they were open to rewriting the rules.

The Public Prosecution Service, which must decide whether to appeal the case, declined to comment on what it would do. A spokeswoman for Health Canada said it was too soon to say what would happen.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, said plans to overhaul the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations were already being worked out.

"We are disappointed with this decision," wrote Tim Vail, a spokesman for Tory Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, in an e-mail. "We are currently considering longer-term measures to reform the medical access program and its regulations."

Mr. Vail refused to specify what those measures are.

The Liberals issued a similar response, reiterating their opposition to legalizing the drug, but leaving the door open to decriminalizing possession of small amounts and revisiting the regulations for medicinal users.

"We need to study the decision in more detail," said party spokesman Michael O'Shaughnessy. "In government, we would work with the Department of Justice and Health Canada to see what could be done to ensure the system works efficiently for Canadians in need of this treatment."

The NDP campaign could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Mernagh's lawyer, meanwhile, said he expected the government would appeal, which would mean the ruling would not come into effect until after the case was decided in a higher court. In the meantime, however, the current decision could help people facing similar charges in Ontario by setting a legal precedent they could raise in their own cases.

"Anyone currently facing growing or possession charges can say 'I am being charged under a law that's been found to be unconstitutional,'" said Paul Lewin.

One of those people is Robert Neron, a resident of a small northern town near Kapuskasing. He has been licensed to use marijuana to relieve his cervical dystonia for more than a decade, but says Health Canada has taken more than seven months to process his application to renew his licence and, while waiting on the renewal, police seized his plants and charged him. He is due in court next week.

"I hope all my charges will be dropped - [the Mernagh decision]will have an impact on my case," he said. "This court just reaffirmed what we've been fighting for all these years."

Mr. Mernagh, for his part, said he was ready to continue the legal battle to make sure he and other medicinal users can get their pot. Marijuana is the only drug that's helped control his pain while still allowing him to function, he said.

"This is my medicine of choice and I wouldn't know what to do without it," he said.

 

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