Photo Credit:PETER POWER/TORONTO STAR
Zack Naftolin, left, and Warren Hitzig celebrate outside of the Old City Hall courthouse yesterday after drug trafficking charges against them were dropped. The two are co-founders of the Toronto Compassion Centre, which provides medicinal marijuana.
Marijuana charges dropped
Founders of 'compassion club' celebrate victory
But new medicinal rules could mean more charges
The federal justice department has dropped drug trafficking charges against a Toronto "compassion club," scoring a new victory for unlicensed groups that provide seriously ill patients access to medical marijuana.
Yesterday's decision comes 17 months after the Toronto Compassion Centre was raided by a dozen police officers in August, 2002. At the time, the centre was providing marijuana to 1,200 patients who had doctors' prescriptions to treat illnesses such as epilepsy, spinal cord disease and multiple sclerosis.
Standing on the steps of Toronto's Old City Hall courthouse following the decision, Warren Hitzig let out a holler and called it a "great victory."
Hitzig is the 27-year-old founder of the Toronto Compassion Centre who was charged in the raid.
"This opens the gates for people who want to fight for their rights to distribute medical marijuana," he said, surrounded by supporters.
Hitzig, along with club co-founder Zack Naftolin, had been charged with possession and trafficking, and a preliminary hearing was set to begin yesterday. Instead, the federal crown asked that the charges be withdrawn.
Despite the jubilation, Jim Leising, the justice department's director of criminal prosecutions in Ontario, said the club could be charged again.
The case against Hitzig and Naftolin, he said, involved unique circumstances in light of last October's Ontario Court of Appeal decision, which recognized the service they were providing in the absence of any government-licensed or sanctioned marijuana supply at the time. Since that ruling — which simultaneously reinstated the law making pot possession illegal — the government has moved to license its own growers and suppliers, he said.
"It just wasn't in the public's interest to prosecute them," he said.
But Alan Young, a defence lawyer who helped set up the Toronto Compassion Centre, said technically compassion clubs still exist "in legal limbo." The fact that the crown dropped charges in this case, coupled with a recent stay of charges involving a Montreal compassion club, "indicates the government is not willing or able to prosecute clubs that are performing a public service.
"I do believe these clubs will flourish and this withdrawal is perhaps some incentive for these enterprises to continue," he said, adding the Toronto club will continue to seek licensing from Health Canada.
Alison Myrden, a 40-year-old Burlington resident who has a federal exemption to smoke pot to treat chronic progressive multiple sclerosis and other ailments, said the Toronto Compassion Centre is able to supply the right "strain" of cannabis to ease her symptoms.
"We need the government to license these compassion centres. Right now the government doesn't give the opportunity for choice."
Naftolin, 26, who works at the Toronto Hemp Company, said he would like to return to helping patients, but "I'm still trying to take it all in."
Hitzig said he's undergone too much stress and won't go back to supplying medical marijuana — "unless the government offered me an administrative job."
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