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Now Magazine
2002/08/22
REEFER SADNESS
POT CLUB BUST SENDS ME ONTO THE STREET TO SCORE
BY MATTHEWA A. MERNAGH

I am member 022 of the Toronto Compassion Centre. Not that it will do me any good now. Last week the feisty little organization at Bathurst and St. Clair that supplies medical marijuana to 1,200 of us who endure the daily pain of AIDS, hep C, MS, bipolar disorder and more was busted by Toronto's finest.

For five years this fearless pot pharmacy navigated the messy business that has become federal marijuana policy. But when drug officers from 13 and 53 Divisions battered down the door on August 13, with their guns pointed, hundreds of us were suddenly sent back on the streets to scrounge for our meds.

At our revered Compassion Club, purchasing medicinal doobies was not unlike having a prescription filled at a neighbourhood drug store. The difference was that the herb was often cheaper than meds peddled by pharmaceutical companies. My own monthly regimen included $200 (less than an ounce) for marijuana and $35 for kava kava and St. John's wort.

I suffered a terrible flare-up of arthritis this winter, and my pharmaceutical bill, footed by Ontario's drug benefit program, staggered in at an impressive $445.14 a month (Celebrex $88.97, Effexor XR $109.84, Zyprexa $220.84, Cytotec $25.49).

The kingpins of the Compassion operation, Warren Hitzig and Zach Naftolin, should be awarded honourary Bachelors of Science for their knowledge of medicinal weed. In a busy week, they'd speak to between 500 and 600 patients -- currently Health Canada has only granted 806 people country-wide status to burn corn legally.

The centre provides its members with detailed analyses of the various strains; a message board in the back room offers a percentile rating of how much sativa or indica is present in the bud. This vital information is especially useful for those who keep a daily health log. Members who require a more uplifting, appetite-inducing high prefer to toke sativa breeds, while some, like me, desire the meditative body stone of the indica strains.

Now I've returned to scoring green on the street. With not much luck. People ingesting for medicinal reasons require a steady, consistent supply, plus information on what strain they're purchasing. Having used the centre's simple, effective service for so long, I've forgotten the street lingo needed for scoring. "Which one is more?" I ask a dealer when queried whether I want a "lid or macaroni and cheese."

Next time I'll bring the handy slang dictionary provided by www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov. They've identified 2,300 slang terms for specific drug types and activities, of which 588 directly relate to marijuana.

According to the site, a lid is "one ounce of marijuana" while macaroni and cheese is a "$5 pack of marijuana." At the club I used to purchase my medicine in $10/gram increments, which is not typical of how street dealers' pre-packaged sizes work. You can also forget about asking them whether they're selling an indica or sativa strain.

Of course, the government righteously promised to become our dealer of choice back in 2000 when pain sufferers won the right to access in that landmark court decision. And while the feds awarded a Flin Flon, Manitoba, company a five-year contract to grow the herb in an abandoned copper mine, no government green has ended up in the lungs of sick people.

Health Canada says it is waiting for research studies but that they can't be started until it is ascertained that the Flin Flon weed is "safe." That means don't hold your breath. Department spokesperson Andrew Swift admits, "It's taking more time than we anticipated, as safety is our first priority."

Professor and club lawyer Alan Young believes the foot-dragging has gone on long enough. He's launched a a civil suit funded by the Washington, DC-based Marijuana Policy Project to free the fed's medicinal weed on behalf of the centre, Hitzig and seven other people he has worked with over the years. Four of these people have current exemptions, two had exemptions under the old Health Canada system but don't now, and the last person's doctor won't fill out the new paperwork because doctors' insurers have told them not to.

Waiting for the feds to take their royal time just isn't an option. Since I met Hitzig five years ago at Chatty Patty's at Yonge and Wellesley, I've been so much better. He promised to relieve my chronic arthritic pain, put some meat on my bones and reduce the stress of being ill. And he made good.

Back then, this skater kid who was booted from George Brown's social science program for his staunch belief in the power of the herb, had a naive ambition. I was extremely skeptical, but still heartened that someone was willing to take the risk of imprisonment for my health.

When the bust came, Hitzig could hardly believe it. He thought at first it was another attack by masked hoodlums like the one last December that left Naftolin with a concussion. Says Hitzig, "It's really ironic. After the robbery we installed panic buttons. We couldn't see who it was on our security camera, and Zach asked, "Should I push the button?' I told him, "Go ahead.' Then I noticed on one of the officers' bullet-proof vests the word "Police.' They went through the place like a tornado in a small town."

There is rampant speculation about exactly what led police to make the raid. Young says it's especially disappointing since he believes the club had a tacit understanding with officers at 13 Division. When the club called police following the December robbery, he believes there were too many officers in the building for any of them to look the other way and pretend the club wasn't a pot service.

"I spoke with officer Lorna Jackson of 13 Division," Young says. "She said they had to investigate the club. She stopped returning my calls in March, so I figured the matter was resolved. What really upsets me is that we were really upfront with them. I could have provided the accused, but they had to come in violently. It's an enormously frightening experience."

Jackson cannot be reached for comment, but police media relations officer Jim Muscat denies any sort of arrangement between the club and the 13 Division officer. "I have zero knowledge of that. Police seized a sizable amount of hashish, marijuana and cash. Those arrested were charged with eight counts, mostly from the marijuana, the last count being possession of property obtained from a crime."

Young may be dismayed, but he's got lots of reefers in the fire, so to speak. Besides the civil suit, he also has two court cases designed to challenge the law before the nine justices of the Supreme Court of Canada. He thinks there is a way out for the feds, similar to the abortion law: let the marijuana law fall by the wayside and "the government can appease the American zealots. It would be easy for Canada to say, "We didn't do it, our courts did.'"

Fears of U.S. pressure aren't stoner paranoia. Bruce Mirkin of the Marijuana Policy Project says his group is funding the civil case because he believes it can be demonstrated that the U.S. is meddling in Canadian pot policy. Both he and Young agree there are implied threats floating down from on high in Washington.

"I'm 100 per cent aware that the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) sent a rep to make a presentation to the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs," says Young. "When U.S. government officials talk about increasing border patrols, what they're really saying is "We're going to fuck with your trucking industry if you continue to go in this direction (decriminalization).'"

With all this pressure mounting from beyond the border, it's high time people came out of the marijuana closest in a show of force. Just repeat after me: "I'm green and I'm proud." Do it in front of the bathroom mirror 50 times to summon your inner courage.



LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

Pharmas fear pot

I feel deeply for Matthew A. Mernagh and all the members of the Toronto Compassion Centre who will no longer have access to their medicine (Reefer Sadness, NOW, August 22-28).

The article brings up a very interesting point: the cost of medical cannabis versus commercial drugs with similar effects. Pharmaceutical companies are no doubt fighting against medical cannabis. An effective painkiller that people can grow themselves is fierce competition for their products. But I, for one, am more concerned that sufferers of debilitating diseases can get an effective low-cost medication than I am about protecting the pocketbooks of drug manufacturers.

ADAM WIGGINS
Pasadena, CA

Clubbing compassion
Guns drawn and bulletproof vests to raid a medical marijuana club? Who are the real criminals?

KEVIN ALLAN, Vancouver

Law ruins lives

Reefer sadness makes me feel old, really old, when I think that this is the same debate 30 years later. There will never be resolution or compromise re marijuana: compassionate use for those who suffer from pain or evil drug that leads to use of more evil drugs. Of course, one's definition of compassion varies from person to person, pain can be relative, and your pain is not my problem.

The Compassion Centre should not be surprised by its situation. There is the strong influence of American policy. The United States and Canada have very different moral and legal views on marijuana. That has never been in question. The reality is, more people's lives have been derailed, messed up and complicated by criminal records for possession of marijuana than by smoking it. Of course, I might just be paranoid about that claim.

Douglas Helliker, Toronto



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