Cirque du Soleil co-founder in custody in Tahiti over alleged cannabis cultivation

Co-founder of Cirque du Soleil Guy Laliberté poses for a photograph in Montreal, Tuesday, June 21, 2011. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Canadian entrepreneur Guy Laliberte, founder of the Cirque du Soleil circus company, was due in a courtroom in French Polynesia Wednesday over claims of cannabis cultivation.

Lune Rouge, a Montreal-based entrepreneurial organization headed by Laliberte, said in a statement that he was being held by authorities in Tahiti.

The company said Laliberte was being questioned over cannabis grown for personal use on his private island of Nukutepipi in the French collectivity of islands in the South Pacific. The organization said Laliberte, 60, is a medical cannabis user.

“We confirm that Mr. Guy Laliberte is currently held in custody at the Gendarmerie on the island of Tahiti,” a statement from Lune Rouge before the court appearance said. It said Laliberte “categorically denies and dissociates himself from” any rumours about his sale or trafficking of controlled substances.

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The statement also said Lune Rouge was collaborating with local authorities in their investigation.

An assistant to lawyer Yves Piriou, an attorney based in the capital Papeete, confirmed he was in court representing Laliberte in a hearing that could last much of Wednesday.

Under French law, which applies in French Polynesia, planting cannabis, even for personal consumption, is illegal.

Ilana Amouyal, a Montreal-based lawyer who was born in France and practised law there, said even if Laliberte had a Canadian certificate allowing him to access medical marijuana, it wouldn’t apply in the French Pacific territory.

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The French National Assembly last month passed a law to legalize therapeutic cannabis for a two-year trial period beginning in early 2020. But under the law, medicinal marijuana must be prescribed by a specialist at the hospital and purchased from the hospital pharmacy for the initial purchase, Amouyal explained.

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It is also reserved for people suffering from very specific illnesses or chronic or intense pain, meaning the number of people permitted to use it is very restricted.

Under the French penal code, sentences related to cannabis can vary depending on the charge — from a maximum of one year in jail for consumption to a maximum of 20 years for production or fabrication, along with hefty fines.

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A travel advisory for French Polynesia on the Global Affairs Canada website warns: “Penalties for possession, use or trafficking of illegal drugs are severe. Convicted offenders can expect jail sentences and heavy fines.”

In June 2018, Laliberte announced he was investing in an Ontario pot company — purchasing 12.85 per cent of Ontario firm 48North Cannabis. At the time, Lune Rouge announced it had assessed the market and believed there was growth potential in the medical cannabis sector ahead of legalization in Canada.

Laliberte, 60, is best known for starting the internationally renowned Cirque du Soleil in Quebec in 1984. Since selling most of his ownership stake in 2015, he has held a 10 per cent share in the entertainment company.

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Laliberte then founded Lune Rouge in 2015 with the aim of promoting innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. The company develops projects and invests in funds with a focus on technology, arts, entertainment and real estate. Laliberte is also known for a 12-day sojourn on the International Space Station in 2009, a visit to raise awareness for his One Drop Foundation.

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The Quebec businessman bought his remote island estate in French Polynesia, which has 21 bedrooms and 25 bathrooms and can sleep up to 52 guests, in 2007. An Airbnb listing posted this year said staying at his private Pacific atoll starts at 900,000 euros ($1.3 million) for seven nights.

A spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada said it is aware of reports of a Canadian held in French Polynesia, but declined further comment, citing privacy restrictions.

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