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Hemp-Store Owner to Challenge Canadian Drug Laws

High Times
By Chesley Hicks
June, 1997

LONDON, ONTARIO -- Canadian hemp retailer Chris Clay is operating an ambitious publicity and legal campaign for his April 28 trial stemming from two raids on both his home and business. The trial is of national significance, as Clay's attorney, Toronto law professor Alan Young, will invoke a Canadian right to present a constitutional challenge -- arguing that the current anti-cannabis laws should be struck down for violating Canada s constitutionally guaranteed right for citizens to make autonomous decisions with respect to their bodily integrity.

Clay s trouble began on May 17, 1995, when local police joined with members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to raid his London store, Hemp Nation, after he had sold a Skunk #1 female clone to an undercover cop. Police seized 12 clones, a stock of viable seeds and nearly C$50,000 (about US$37,000) worth of paraphernalia. After spending a night in jail, the 25-year-old art-school grad was charged with intent to traffic, trafficking, cultivation and selling drug paraphernalia. A Hemp Nation employee was also charged with trafficking and cultivation. While Clay was still in jail, his home was raided and two roommates charged with possession of a gram of cannabis that was found.

Released on bail, Clay restocked his store, expanding his focus to include more hemp and eco-friendly products, but defied bail conditions by selling paraphernalia and seeds. That led to a second raid on Dec. 6, 1996, when he was arrested again, this time for selling viable cannabis seeds. As with the first bust, an employee was also arrested and police seized Clay s seeds and C$40,000 in stock. Additionally, three computers and financial records were seized by the "Proceeds of Crime Unit" for the purpose of proving that Clay "enriched himself with the proceeds of crime." He spent four days in the county jail before his father could raise his bail, and was charged again with possession, intent to traffic and selling paraphernalia, plus breach of bail conditions.

But Clay, determined to stay open for business, restocked his store with money from a loan he d taken just prior to his second arrest -- although this time without the paraphernalia or seeds.

He claims that despite the raids, he s always had amicable relations with local authorities.

"Ever since I opened, I've been operating in a gray area," Clay admits. "I even called the police prior to the raids to find out what I could sell and what I couldn't. The problem was they didn't know. There is no list of what is and is not paraphernalia. In some towns they go so far as to classify any pipe with a screen as paraphernalia."

But if things were really going well, why did he push the envelope with clones and seeds?

"I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the inactivity of the Canadian government on the cannabis issue and finally decided to sell the plants," he says. "Since the police had never bothered me previously, I wasn t sure if they would arrest me or not. But I never dreamed that if they did they would seize most of my inventory. That nearly bankrupted me."

In the time between the two arrests, Clay mounted a grass-roots campaign to raise funds and rally support. He established a $25 Victory Bond -- "redeemable for a quarter-ounce of quality marijuana once prohibition has ended" -- in order to fund the trial, and recruited Toronto law professor Alan Young to handle his case.

Young, who worked with Canadian NORML in the 1994 court case that overturned Canada s ban on "drug literature" (Highwitness News, Feb. 95), says he took Clay s case because it is not a typical possession prosecution. "Chris Clay is an advocate," he says. "He s used his commercial store as a platform for the legalization issue. He s willing to be the sacrificial lamb in order to get the cannabis issue before our courts, and more importantly, before the court of public opinion."

Clay says he is going to trial rather than taking a guilty plea because "I was always angry that so many people plead guilty just to get it over with. I always felt that I hadn t done anything morally wrong and that there is overwhelming evidence to show that the laws should be changed."

Both Young and Clay say that they have been encouraged by the prosecution to plea-bargain in order to keep the constitutional issues out of court. "Last year, the Crown attorney offered me a deal where I could get a discharge if I pled guilty to possession," Clay notes. "All the other charges would be dropped, including those against my friends and employees. All I would lose would be my seized merchandize. But I refused and my attorney, Alan Young, feels the second bust was just an attempt to turn up the heat."

For the April 28 hearing, Professor Young and a host of prominent government officials, academicians, and law workers are scheduled to appear on Clay s behalf. Young intends to defend the case based on what he calls the "harm principle argument," maintaining, "There has to be a threshold of harm in a conduct before Parliament can rely on the criminal sanction to punish. We will demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that marijuana simply doesn t satisfy that threshold." Additionally, Young plans to pursue a right-to-privacy argument based on a precedent set in an abortion case, which asserts that Canadians have a constitutional right to make autonomous decisions with respect to their bodily integrity and security.

Both sides agree that all related charges, including Clay s second arrest and that of his employees and friends, are pending the outcome of April s hearing.

In the meantime, Clay says that in the face of rising prolegalization sentiment in Canada, he remains unfettered by authorities and is free to build his business and travel freely. "They still have everything they took in the raids, but we re still going strong."