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Judge Frances Howard, British Columbia, Canada

A lengthy case over the butt of a marijuana joint ends with an absolute discharge.

There is no evidence marijuana use causes health problems, and the laws prohibiting the substance cause harm to society, a B.C. provincial court judge ruled Monday.

But Judge Frances Howard said she could not overturn the nation's pot laws on a constitutional challenge because Parliament still has the legal right to outlaw marijuana.

"The occasional to moderate use of marijuana by a healthy adult is not ordinarily harmful to health, even if used over a long period of time," the judge said Monday in a decision handed down after a five-year court battle.

"Countless Canadians, mostly adolescents and young adults, are being prosecuted in the 'criminal' courts, subjected to the threat of - if not actual - imprisonment, and branded with criminal records for engaging in an activity that is remarkably benign ... [while] others are free to consume societyís drugs of choice, alcohol and tobacco, even though these drugs are known killers," the judge said.

She said the social harm associated with the pot laws include disrespect for all laws by up to a million people prepared to use pot and a lack of communication between young persons and their elders about the drug.

She said there is no evidence that marijuana induces psychosis in healthy adults, or that it is addictive, is associated with criminality, or that is a gateway drug to other, harder drugs. The ``vast majorityíí of pot users do not go on to try hard drugs, she said.

"There have been no deaths from marijuana," she said, adding "assuming current rates of consumption remain stable, the health-related costs of marijuana use are very, very small in comparison with those costs associated with tobacco and alcohol consumption."

She was ruling in judgment of Randy Caine, a 44-year-old Langley man arrested in Surrey in 1993 for possession of a butt of a marijuana cigarette weighing one gram, or 0.01765 ounces.

Caine admitted his possession of an illegal drug, but his lawyer John Conroy called a number of expert witnesses to argue that the country's pot laws contravene Canadiansí rights to liberty if they are doing nothing to harm others.

After Howard ruled Monday that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms did not protect him, Caine entered a plea of guilty and was given an absolute discharge, meaning he pays no penalty and does not have a criminal record.

Both Conroy and Caine said they would study the decision to determine if there are grounds to appeal.

Conroy and other lawyers across Canada are eager to challenge the marijuana-possession laws in the Supreme Court of Canada, hoping the high court will overturn the laws.

Howard said she could not throw out the countryís drug laws because it is up to Parliament and legislators to enact laws and the federal government fears the number of chronic users -- those using one or more marijuana cigarettes a day might escalate if the drug is legalized.

Of the one million Canadians estimated to use marijuana, about five per cent are considered chronic users, the judge said. They can suffer the same respiratory ill-effects as tobacco users, although "these costs are negligible compared to the costs associated with alcohol and drugs," Howard said.

"It is for Parliament to determine what level of risk is acceptable and what level of risk requires action."

Caine also argued he had a fundamental right under the charter to have marijuana as long as he wasnít harming anyone else, but Howard said she was bound by earlier court rulings that the charter does not guarantee a right to possess pot.

Howard noted the federal government added marijuana to the list of outlawed drugs in 1923 after a series of "sensationalist articles" were published in Maclean's Magazine on the supposed effects of marijuana use, including claims the drug caused mental illness and death.

"They consisted of reckless allegations of fact which were, quite simply, untrue," the judge said.

"All the witnesses from whom I have heard. . . appear to agree that there is no evidence to suggest that low/occasional/moderate users assume any significant health risks from smoking marijuana, as long as they are healthy adults and do not fall into one of the vulnerable groups, namely immature youths, pregnant women and the mentally ill."

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