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Canadian soldier pleads not guilty to drugging artillery unit with cannabis during live-fire exercise

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VICTORIA — A Canadian soldier accused of drugging her comrades with cannabis-laced cupcakes during a live-fire exercise has pleaded not guilty to the charges in a military court.

The trial marks the first time that a Canadian Armed Forces member stands charged with administering marijuana to colleagues without their consent, according to the Office of the Judge Advocate General.

Bombardier Chelsea Cogswell faces a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment on 10 charges, including disgraceful conduct and administering a noxious substance to eight soldiers in July 2018.

Previous charges of neglect to the prejudice of good order and discipline were withdrawn before the trial began Wednesday.

The charges stem from a July 2018 incident at the army’s Combat Training Centre at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick.

Over the coming days, the court expects to hear from more than a dozen witnesses, including the members of Cogswell’s artillery unit who ate the chocolate cupcakes and then reported feelings of paranoia, confusion and fatigue.

Cogswell was one of two members working at a mobile canteen on July 21, 2018, during Exercise Common Gunner, an intensive three-week combat training scenario with the Royal Canadian Artillery School.

According to an agreed statement of facts in the case, Cogswell baked a dozen cupcakes the night before and gave them away free from the canteen in the morning.

Military police were called to investigate when several soldiers began showing symptoms of impairment on the training grounds.

“All the members of W Battery who consumed the cupcakes, except one, allegedly experienced symptoms which included dehydration, overheating, fatigue, confusion, dry mouth and paranoia,” according to court records.

INTOXICATION LED TO MISTAKES, WITNESSES SAY

A fellow bombardier testified Wednesday that he ate one of the cupcakes before going on sentry duty near the artillery gun line that morning.

The soldier said he started feeling dehydrated, “spaced out” and “incoherent” approximately 45 minutes to an hour after eating the small chocolate cupcake. 

He testified that he returned to the gun line where he witnessed a fellow gunner try to load an artillery shell into the gun while the shell’s protective end cap was still on.

A second gunner testified that he became “spacey,” “paranoid” and “sluggish” after eating one of the treats. In his confusion, the soldier said he incorrectly set a timing fuze, which controls how far down range an artillery shell will explode.

The soldier said he witnessed another gunner slip twice while operating the artillery gun, saying the mistakes were uncharacteristic of her typical behaviour.

The alleged victims testified that another troop of gunners soon arrived at the gun line to deploy their own artillery.

Members of that troop also reported feeling disoriented and asked if the others had also eaten the cupcakes. It was then that the soldiers realized the likely source of their intoxication, they told the court.

A third gunner testified that he felt “anxious” and “wanted to vomit” while in the field, fearing that his symptoms were the result of a historical head injury.

Medical staff treated all of the troops who reported symptoms of intoxication and the troops withdrew from the exercise.

CUPCAKE WRAPPER TESTED FOR THC

A single cupcake wrapper was collected from the scene and sent to a Health Canada lab in Quebec for testing, the court heard Wednesday.

The test confirmed the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, according to the agreed statement of facts.

The military also collected urine samples from five of the soldiers who ate the cupcakes. A lab in London, Ont., determined that all five contained varying levels of THC, the court heard.

Recreational marijuana was still outlawed in Canada in July 2018, three months before the federal Cannabis Act legalized its use and possession.

A lawyer for the prosecution argued Wednesday that Cogswell’s actions introduced significant risk into an already risky training scenario, and violated the integrity of her colleagues, including a member who had been in recovery from substance use for several years.

Cogswell has served in the army’s regular forces since June 2011. She became a qualified artillery gunner in 2013 and was promoted to the rank of bombardier in 2015.

Cogswell was not serving in a supervisory role with the artillery school at the time of the alleged offences, and she remains a Canadian Armed Forces member, a spokesperson for the Judge Advocate General’s office told CTV News in May.

“A review of our court martial records indicate that this is the first time a member has faced a court martial for allegedly administering cannabis to colleagues without their consent,” said spokesperson Wendy Wharton.

The court martial hearing is scheduled to last two weeks. 

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