Marijuana-induced psychosis behind Toronto lawyer’s bat attack, judge rules
SEAN FINE JUSTICE WRITER ST. THOMAS, ONT. APRIL 10, 2018
Mark Phillips arrives at court in St. Thomas, Ont., on April 10, 2018.
As the federal government prepares to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, an Ontario judge has ruled that cannabis-induced psychosis led a man to a seemingly hate-filled attack on a family, in what appears to be the first case of its kind in Canadian criminal courts.
The man who committed the attack, Mark Phillips, is a Toronto lawyer with an otherwise clean record, and the great-grandson of Nathan Phillips, a former mayor after whom the civic square in front of Toronto City Hall is named. The 37-year-old pleaded guilty Tuesday to assault causing harm in the Dec. 7 incident in St. Thomas, in southwestern Ontario, in which he cracked a man’s rib with a baseball bat.
Sergio Estepa was with his wife, Mari, teenage son and a family friend, speaking Spanish in the parking lot of a St. Thomas mall when a stranger, Mr. Phillips, approached and told them to stop speaking French, according to evidence in court.
He then came at them with a baseball bat, repeatedly screaming “ISIS,” saying he was arresting the family, and calling for help. The family also called for help.
Ontario Court Justice John Skowronski said that, in ordinary circumstances, such an attack would call for a penitentiary sentence — that is, at least two years in federal prison. But he accepted the recommendation of defence lawyer Steven Skurka that Mr. Phillips be given a conditional discharge, on the condition that he complete three years of probation. A conditional discharge means that, once his probation is successfully finished, Mr. Phillips will not have a criminal record.
Addressing the family, whose members had told the court in emotional victim-impact statements about the nightmares and anxiety they had experienced, Justice Skowronski said he wanted them to know that what happened to them was an aberration for the country. “Canada is a country of immigrants, different nations, skin colours, accents, names,” he said, adding that his name had not come from this country.
“This is something that took place because of a mental illness.”
Although Crown prosecutor Lisa Defoe had urged a suspended sentence and probation, which would have left Mr. Phillips with a criminal record, she, too, had accepted the defence argument that the attack was caused by cannabis-induced psychosis.
“At first blush this may appear to be a hate crime,” she told Justice Skowronski, “but it’s important for the Crown not to react emotionally.”
Mr. Skurka had told the court that Peter Collins, a forensic psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, had uncovered after several sessions with Mr. Phillips that he had been smoking marijuana heavily, including three or four joints earlier on the day of the attack.
With marijuana legalization on the horizon, the case raises questions about mental-health risks and new challenges for the legal system. According to Mr. Skurka, Dr. Collins warned that higher levels than in the past of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in cannabis, is creating a higher incidence of drug-induced psychosis.