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Supreme Court says Quebec ban on homegrown pot plants is constitutional

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Quebec's ban on possessing and cultivating cannabis plants for personal purposes is constitutional, Canada's high court ruled Friday.

The Constitution allows Quebec to implement the restrictions, which do not frustrate the purpose of the federal Cannabis Act, the Supreme Court of Canada said in a unanimous ruling. The federal law permits people to grow or own up to four cannabis plants at home.

"The provincial act's public health and security objectives and its prohibitions are, to a large degree, in harmony with the objectives of the federal act, and there is no basis for finding a conflict of purposes," Chief Justice Richard Wagner wrote for the court.

Canada adopted the Cannabis Act in 2018, decriminalizing the recreational use of cannabis across the country. Quebec responded soon after with its own law, prohibiting possession of a cannabis plant, with fines ranging from $250 to $750.

The high court said Quebec's law is a valid use of its powers regarding subjects under exclusive provincial jurisdiction: property and civil rights, and matters of a merely local or private nature.

Wagner wrote that Quebec's marijuana legislation has a different approach compared with the federal law but shares the same objectives -- to reduce the presence of criminal organizations in the cannabis market and restrict homegrown marijuana.

The court said the prohibitions under Quebec's law are meant to ensure the effectiveness of the state-run cannabis monopoly, which is designed to prevent and reduce harm from marijuana by limiting consumers' options.

"The provincial legislature was of the view that, by contributing to the creation of a single market, the absolute prohibitions against possession and cultivation at home would serve to limit trafficking in cannabis from unauthorized sources," Wagner wrote.

"Furthermore, it is not this court's role to decide which of the two approaches -- prohibiting personal production or tolerating it -- is most likely to reduce illicit activities in relation to cannabis."

In addition to Quebec, Manitoba has a similar ban in place on homegrown cannabis.

The Supreme Court's decision dismisses an appeal brought by Janick Murray-Hall, a Quebecer who had challenged the provincial ban successfully in 2019 before Quebec's Superior Court, arguing that federal law should prevail over the provincial ban.

Quebec's attorney general appealed that decision and won in September 2021; Murray-Hall then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Murray-Hall's lawyer, Maxime Guerin, told The Canadian Press the ruling enshrines the principle that Quebec can associate cannabis with public health.

"It confirms Quebec's right to be a little independent or different in its way of approaching this question," Guerin said Friday. "There is certainly some disappointment, but it is the decision of the highest court, it's a constitutional decision and we don't have much choice but to rely on this."

Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said in a tweet Friday the provincial government is satisfied with the decision.

"The Cannabis Regulation Act aims to protect the health and safety of Quebecers, especially our young people," Jolin-Barrette wrote, adding that the ruling confirms "the full capacity to act of Quebec in this matter. Quebec will always defend its competencies."

The Canadian Cancer Society intervened in the case because of the potential implications for provincial public health laws. Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the society, said Friday's ruling could have an impact beyond cannabis, and affect substances such as tobacco, e-cigarettes and alcohol.

"The judgment concludes that provinces have wide ability to adopt laws more restrictive than federal laws in subject areas where both levels of government legislate," Cunningham said. "This will be helpful to provinces in defending future constitutional challenges, such as attempts by tobacco companies to strike down provincial tobacco control laws."

An association representing Quebec rental property owners and managers said they were relieved with the ruling and called on the law to be rigorously enforced in the province. The organization noted that cultivating plants requires high levels of humidity that result in property damage and mould issues, leading to higher repair costs.

With files from Pierre Saint-Arnaud.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2023. 

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