Story by Preston Peet

Much of the credit for Canada’s recent moves towards saner marijuana policies can be laid at the feet of Alan Young, a 46-year-old professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. After nearly a decade of battling in the courts, Young’s efforts are now knocking the foundations out from under Canada’s pot prohibition.
Young, who earned a master’s degree in law from Harvard University in 1986, began working to reform the marijuana laws in the mid-1990s, when he was instrumental in getting Canada’s laws banning "drug literature" overturned. (That allowed Canadian newsdealers to sell HIGH TIMES.) "I grew up in the drug-taking decade of the 1970s, and understand the folly of criminalizing this behavior," he explains. "Criminal law has become so overburdened and fat that it doesn’t serve its purpose, which is protecting us from violence, be it physical or psychological. Politically, most of my work in law has been to try to streamline the beast."

One of his main current cases involves the medical-marijuana regulations put in place by Health Canada in July 2001. Last September, Young argued before a federal court in Ottawa that the rules were a "burden-laden process" that effectively forced patients to get their medicine on the black market. On Jan. 9, Ontario Superior Court Judge Sidney Lederman agreed, giving the Canadian government six months—until July—to set up a program to distribute marijuana to patients, or the pot laws will be thrown out entirely. The government is seeking an extension.

"It seems to make sense, that as a matter of logic and compassion, that if you authorize [medical] use, you have to facilitate that use," explains Young. "The idea is that the law is overbroad. It is only constitutionally sound when it coexists with an operative medical program. If there is no program, you cannot criminalize marijuana possession because you will be penalizing medical users along with recreational users."

Young will be before the Supreme Court of Canada in another case later this year, arguing that marijuana is not dangerous enough to warrant its illegal status. But though some Canadian judges have been refusing to prosecute marijuana cases until the current confusing policies are cleared up, Young is still cautious about the future. "It’s always been murky," he says. "We were on the verge of change in the late 1970s, the US appeared that way too, but the 1980s brought in a whole other era. If it doesn’t happen soon, I wonder how long the momentum will continue."

One major obstacle to change in Canada is pressure from Washington. Young calls the situation in the US "dismal, off the map." He wonders how US officials like Drug Czar John Walters can continue to advocate prohibition despite its obvious failure. "I think it is a psychological defense mechanism that any Drug Warrior has to adopt," he says, "because how can you live with yourself once you realize the folly of your actions? They have to believe that marijuana is destructive of American society. So I would just tell Walters that it is bad for the spirit to live a life of delusion. He’ll die unhappy."