High court awards pot crusader new trial

October 26, 2006

Norma Greenaway, CanWest News Service, Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA -- A medical marijuana crusader from Alberta will get a new trial on drug charges after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously Thursday the judge in his original trial had reduced the jury's role to a "ceremonial" one.

In a 7-0 judgment, the top court said Grant Krieger of Calgary was deprived of his "constitutional right" to a trial by jury when the judge in the case directed the jury to find the accused guilty of possession of marijuana for the purposes of trafficking. It quashed Krieger's conviction and ordered a new trial by jury.

"The trial judge's direction was not a `slip of the tongue,"' Justice Morris Fish wrote on behalf of the court. "His purpose and words were clear. In effect, the trial judge reduced the jury's role to a ceremonial one."

Krieger said he was overjoyed by the ruling, and the prospect of a new trial.

Krieger, who uses marijuana to help cope with his multiple sclerosis, said he is confident a "jury of his peers" will find him not guilty of the charges.

"I'm walking in the same steps as Henry Morgentaler was walking over abortion and female issues," he said in an interview from Calgary. "I'm doing the same thing for the sick, injured and dying on the cannabis issue."

At the original trial, Krieger, 51, confessed to providing marijuana to others in medical need, but he defended his actions on grounds he had no choice other than to break the law to ensure a reliable supply of pot for patients who have a federal exemption for marijuana use.

Before leaving the court room, the judge directed the jurors to convict, and said they were "bound to abide by that direction." He later rejected two jurors requests to be excused on religious grounds and grounds of conscience. The jury subsequently returned with a guilty verdict.

The verdict was upheld in the Alberta Court of Appeal. Although it said trial judge Paul Chrumka made a mistake in ordering the jury to convict, it said a new trial would result in the same verdict. Chief Justice Catherine Fraser dissented, which meant the case was automatically put to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruling confirmed what Fish cited as the well-established notion that juries have the power to refuse to apply the law when their consciences permit no other course.

John Hooker, Krieger's lawyer, had argued the Supreme Court had formally recognized the option of so-called jury nullification in a 1988 ruling that upheld the jury acquittal of abortion doctor Morgentaler.

Hooker said the top court would have delivered a devastating blow to the role of juries in the Canadian judicial system if it had upheld the guilty verdict.

"Now, I think it's an absolute given that everyone has the right to put his case before the people, the jury," he said in an interview.

Hooker said he expects a new trial can begin within the next four or five months.

Krieger's legal journey began seven years ago when police seized 29 marijuana plants from his Calgary home. Since then, he's become an outspoken activist, and was recently convicted in Alberta provincial court of two new drug trafficking charges. His sentencing is slated for February.

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