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Sunday, August 6, 2000

Puffing pain away
Terminally ill, sick laud medicinal-pot ruling
By SHARON LEM-- Sun Media

The storefront is dimly lit and the plants in the windows blend into the laid-back atmosphere of a cramped office.
A man looks for donations to his marijuana fund on Yonge Street in Toronto. He -- and everyone else -- may be allowed to smoke dope legally by this time next year if the federal government does not change the laws on possession.
It's not everyone's idea of a pharmacy, but for 300 sick and terminally ill clients, it's a medicinal haven.

On this day, it's raining, but a steady stream of clients keep trickling in. For many, this place is a matter of life-and-death.

The Toronto Compassion Centre sells joints, marijuana leaves and marijuana-laced cookies, muffins and Rice Krispies snacks to certified clients who smoke pot for medicinal purposes.

"Our clients depend on us to help them connect with marijuana products that are safe," said Compassion Centre volunteer Jim Bridges, 36, who is dying from full-blown AIDS.

About 75% of Compassion Centre clients have AIDS, the remaining 25% suffer illnesses such as cancer or multiple sclerosis.

Earlier this week, Ontario's Court of Appeal vindicated clients like those at the centre by striking down the law that makes it a crime to possess marijuana in Canada. Lawyers argued that the law is unconstitutional because it doesn't include those who use pot for medicinal purposes and forces patients to choose between effective treatment and being arrested.

"We're very pleased with (Monday's) ruling in terms of the endorsement of constitutional rights to use marijuana medicinally, but we're very disappointed by the court for not tackling whether marijuana should continue to be decriminalized," said lawyer Alan Young.

He says if the feds fail to clarify the law within a year, everyone will be allowed to smoke pot legally in Canada. Until the 12 months are up, the current law will continue in effect.

Dr. Benedikt Fischer, a University of Toronto public health and criminology professor, says the Ontario court's decision was to nudge the feds into action.

"We need an explicit legal provision which protects medical pot users or exempts them from pot laws, and they need to find a way to separate out legal use from punitive control of pot use," said Fischer, who is also a scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Justice Minister Anne McLellan said earlier this week that she's willing to consider the possibility of decriminalizing pot.

Decriminalization "is a legitimate question" that needs to be fully explored and debated, she said, adding that using the courts for arresting and charging people with small amounts of soft drugs like pot may not be the most effective use of Canada's law enforcement, judicial and court resources.

Jim Wakeford was the first Canadian awarded an exemption by the federal government in May 1999 to smoke pot for medicinal purposes. A survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that 2% of Ontarians, or 150,000 people, use pot.

Wakeford won the right to possess, cultivate and use pot.

"I'm not getting any better or younger and I hope my (civil action) appeal will be successful and some way will be found to get legal access to a safe and legal supply of marijuana for medicinal users," said Wakeford, who spends $300 a month on the black market.

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