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Legal grass advocates share in bitter harvest
Man grows marijuana for friends who need the weed to feel better

By Scott Tracey Mercury Staff
The Guelph Mercury
Monday, October 7, 2002

DUNDALK -- It's Saturday morning and a small group of people, despite their serious illnesses, have gathered in a country mansion to help its owner harvest his crop. The seven work diligently, pausing occasionally only to step out to the wraparound deck and smoke marijuana cigarettes. The marijuana, which they all consider medicine, has allowed most of them to venture this morning to the 6,000-square-foot Dundalk-area home of Marco Renda, who has become something of an activist.

The crop this day is medical-grade marijuana. Several plants have just been brought in from the field, but the people gathered in Renda's living room are clipping plants which have been drying inside. The mood is festive and friendly. The people here are devoted to seeing marijuana at least decriminalized, preferably legalized.

Renda, 42, who has battled Hepatitis C for two decades, grows marijuana for his own use, but also shares it with other terribly-ill friends and associates such as Burlington's Alison Myrden, 38. The pair are among eight parties involved in a lawsuit against Health Canada.

Myrden, who uses the drug to alleviate the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, including excruciating facial pain, was one of the first Canadians granted a federal exemption to the marijuana possession laws. In a time when many fellow "exemptees" have seen their exemptions expire, Myrden has, so far, managed to maintain hers. Renda qualifies for an exemption, but has not been able to get one. To do so he would have to find two specialists willing to sign a document saying he has tried everything else, but he has not been able to satisfy those conditions. Even if he had an exemption, Renda said he would only legally be able to grow pot for his own use.

The owner of a successful marketing company with 17 employees, he vows to continue giving marijuana to those less fortunate. "My neck is on the line here," he admits while rolling a joint in his kitchen Saturday. "What I'm doing is illegal. "I'm going to continue to distribute until (the government) makes something available so these people don't have to go onto the street."

"I've got to have compassion and help out my fellow human beings. I don't care if it's legal or not." Through their lawsuit, the parties hope to force Ottawa to make marijuana available to those legally entitled to it, and to change the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations to make it easier for the sick to get into the programme.

They argue currently those granted exemptions have no choice but to grow it themselves, or buy it on the black market. Through its licensed contractor, Prairie Plant Systems, Health Canada has grown a large quantity of marijuana in an abandoned mine shaft in Flin Flon, Man. The federal government has said that marijuana is only to be used in clinical trials and is not intended for distribution to the public.

Steve Van de Kemp, 47, another of Renda's guests and a party to the lawsuit, started growing his own pot after feeling his life was in danger every time he bought from street dealers. In 1997 Van de Kemp's house was raided by police and he found himself facing a raft of drug-related charges. The case was before the courts for two years, and in the end Van de Kemp was not only exonerated, but on the government's exempted persons list. His exemption expired in June and he has also been unable to satisfy the government's more stringent qualifications, because of the waiting list for specialists, and a growing unease within the medical community about legal and medical liabilities. "It's a travesty," Van de Kemp says of the situation. "It's perverted that sick people have to get off their death beds and fight the government to use a relatively benign medication."

Van de Kemp suffers from an undiagnosed condition which causes extreme anxiety and panic attacks. Like most of those gathered in Renda's home, he used many different medications, each of them bringing their own side effects, until someone suggested he try marijuana. "Voila," he says with a snap of his fingers. "It was over like that." After eight years on disability and another year spent depleting his savings when disability ran out, Van de Kemp recently began working again. As he speaks, Van de Kemp's frustration becomes increasingly obvious. It is a trait he shares with all the other guests.

"There's no way in hell they'll beat me," says Guelph's Bob LeDuc, 52, his fingers busily snipping at the plant in his hands. "I'm not giving up." LeDuc is another federal exemptee whose exemption has expired. He suffers from epilepsy, irritable bowel syndrome and psoriasis and said marijuana alleviates the symptoms of all three. Without a safe and reliable source of pot, however, he relies on growers such as his host this day. "I've got to have compassion and help out my fellow human beings," Renda says with a shrug. "I don't care if it's legal or not."

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