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Crown, defence give closing arguments in Whitehorse trial over THC-tainted jerky

The fate of a former Whitehorse butcher whose shop supplied THC-tainted jerky to unsuspecting customers — some of whom ended up with severe cannabis intoxication — is now in the hands of a judge. 

The Crown and defence gave their closing submissions Thursday in the trial of John Pauch, who was charged in 2021 with one count of distributing or selling cannabis without a licence under the territorial Cannabis Control and Regulation Act.

Pauch was the owner of now-defunct butcher shop Off The Hook Meatworks, which in December 2020 faced a recall of its house-made jerky after four people showed up at the Whitehorse hospital with symptoms of cannabis intoxication despite not having knowingly consumed any. A doctor who noticed the patients had all consumed Off The Hook jerky flagged the situation to the RCMP, who began an investigation with Yukon environmental health services. 

Hospital tests revealed the patients had THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, in their systems. A number of jerky samples from bags seized at grocery stores or turned in by the public after the recall were also found to contain THC.

While the court heard over the course of the trial that a batch of THC-infused jerky was intentionally made at Off The Hook in late 2020, that product wasn’t intended to be sold to the public. Among the contested issues are how much, if anything, Pauch knew about the THC batch and if he could have been expected to put any safeguards in place.

Case borders on ‘absurd’, defence says

Defence lawyer André Roothman claimed the Crown’s case was of “very little substance and a lot of white noise,” arguing prosecutors hadn’t established how THC got into the jerky that made it to the public.

It was still unknown, Roothman said, as to whether pieces of the intentionally infused batch were bagged with regular jerky for example, and there was only “speculation” that residual cannabis oil on jerky-making equipment contaminated regular batches. 

Roothman attacked the credibility of the witness that provided that “speculation” — Pauch’s son, Joel Pauch, who also worked at Off The Hook. 

“I would go so far as to say that he outright lied to protect his own butt,” Roothman said of Joel.

“He stooped so low to save his own butt that he would send his own father to the gallows.” 

Joel had testified to making cannabis jerky at home, leading him to explore the idea of a licensed edibles business with his father and uncle. Joel said it was a “collective idea” to make a test batch of jerky at Off The Hook to see if his at-home recipe could be scaled up for commercial production, and that he “assumed” THC oil left behind on smoking racks contaminated regular jerky batches. 

A sign that says "OFF THE HOOK MEATWORKS" with a larger sign that says "BUTCHER SHOP" mounted on a building
Off the Hook Meatworks, photographed in Whitehorse on Dec. 31, 2020. (Jackie Hong/CBC)

John, however, who took the witness stand in his own defence Wednesday, testified Joel never told him about making cannabis jerky at home nor about the test batch. 

Off The Hook jerky-maker Terry Badcock, whom Roothman described as trustworthy, separately testified that Joel paid him $250 to make the test batch and that he never discussed it with John. 

Roothman described the making of the intentionally infused jerky as “an undercover operation” and argued that even if it tainted other jerky, it was unreasonable to expect John to have prevented that when he had no idea cannabis products were being made at the shop in the first place.

“This case borders on the exceptional and the absurd,” Roothman said.

Roothman also said the Crown’s focus on John’s participation in his son’s proposed legal edibles business was a “red herring,” and emphasized that John wasn’t on trial for food contamination, but for selling or distributing cannabis. 

Pauch didn’t do due diligence, Crown argues

Territorial Crown attorney Kelly McGill, however, said in her closing submissions that the charge against John was a strict liability offence, meaning the Crown only needs to prove something happened and not the intent behind it. 

“You Honour, John Pauch sold jerky that was contaminated with THC to the public,” she said, noting the fact that he didn’t have a licence to sell cannabis and that unsuspecting people got sick had been admitted by all parties. 

McGill, who worked with fellow territorial Crown attorney Amy Porteous on the trial, suggested John knew more about the cannabis jerky than he was letting on and ought to have been more vigilant. 

“There was an amber light here for Mr. Pauch — several, I would say,” McGill said.

Knowing about his son’s interest in pursuing a legal cannabis edibles business and that his son had occasionally made jerky at Off The Hook, John should have taken measures to ensure that the shop’s facilities weren’t used to make cannabis products, McGill argued.

She suggested he could have explicitly told Joel to not make cannabis jerky at the shop, and repaired the shop’s security camera system so the facility could be monitored and recorded.

A bag with a silver back sits in a window. The bag has brown flakey contents.
What appears to be a bag of jerky sits in a window of the Off the Hook Meatworks store in Whitehorse on Dec. 31, 2020. (Jackie Hong/CBC)

McGill also pointed to John’s self-admitted lack of familiarity with the details of food safety rules, the lack of a cleaning checklist and product quality control, and a series of health inspection reports noting infractions such as containers of food being placed on the floor instead of on shelves and shelves being made of material that could absorb liquids.

Those things, McGill argued, pointed to an overall lack of respect for regulatory regimes and a lack of due diligence in maintaining sanitary and safe conditions at the shop.

Had John warned against making cannabis products in the shop and had proper cleaning and food safety measures been put in place, the situation may have never occurred, McGIll said, noting that 33 people, including seven children and two infants, ultimately experienced involuntary cannabis intoxication because of the tainted jerky.

Judge John Phelps reserved his decision. The parties will return to court April 13 to pick a date for Phelps to deliver his verdict.