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Activists will break law to force politicians to hash out policy

A group of young Ontario activists plans to flout the law in a bid to push lawmakers and the courts to accept marijuana as a medicinal drug.

The 10-member group is organizing illegal "buyers' clubs" across southwestern Ontario for patients whose doctors advise them to smoke marijuana, the Citizen has learned.

This is no back-alley drug operation.  The activists, most of them hemp-store owners, will risk convictions, fines and possibly jail time for trafficking cannabis in a battle they have decided to make very public.  They will not attempt to evade police or hide their cannabis clubs, they say.

At least one of the clubs in Toronto is already selling medicinal marijuana.  The others intend to illegally open for business in the near future -- unless the government acts fast.

A letter signed by the store owners was dispatched yesterday to the federal government informing authorities of the plan to open a buyers' club and asking for exemptions to allow the clubs to operate legally.  The group gave the government until Feb.  12 to respond.

"We are dealing with life-threatening illnesses and enormous suffering, and I do not think it is fair to perpetuate this suffering simply because the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry have demonstrated indifference to this issue," wrote Alan Young, an Osgoode Hall law professor, on behalf of the group.

He expects the government will reject the letter, which will prompt the group to sell marijuana illegally.  The need for a supply network for medicinal marijuana is "urgent and compelling" and it will operate with or without authorization, the letter says.

The move is part of a snowballing effort by advocates to push judges and politicians to allow the medicinal use of marijuana.

A recent Ontario court ruling gave Terry Parker, a Toronto man with epilepsy, the constitutional right to grow and smoke marijuana.  But the ruling was seen as a specific exemption for Mr.  Parker, rather than a precedent applying to anyone.

"It's ridiculous, it's ludicrous," said Peter Young, one of the hemp-store owners ( no relation to the group's lawyer ).  "If the courts say it's OK to use marijuana, then how are they ( patients ) supposed to get it? We really don't have a choice" but to provide the drug illegally.

The members of the group, who met this week in Toronto, say they will sell marijuana only to people with official doctors' notes, and will not take any profits from their trade.

They are hoping the Parker decision can be broadened to include others with medical marijuana needs.  The government, meanwhile, is appealing the decision.

The message the buyers' club group is sending to lawmakers is straightforward:

"The government has an obligation under the Constitution to set up the infrastructure to allow people to access this form of medicine," said the group's lawyer, Mr.  Young, in an interview.

"If they are remiss in their obligation, then the people will be the guardians of the Constitution.  And they will do it regardless of what the legal regime says, or doesn't say.

"We would all prefer to do this legally, but failing that, civil disobedience will be the path to take." Mr.  Young, a high-profile activist for decriminalization of marijuana, said he has made it clear to the group the actions it plans are illegal.

The plan to open buyers' clubs are the last in a stream of events orchestrated by activists to bring the issue to the political fore:

- - An Ottawa physician, Dr.  Don Kilby, applied to Health Canada for permission to supply Jean Charles Pariseau, of Vanier, with marijuana to help relieve some of his AIDS symptoms.  A Health Canada official said the government is willing to approve the use of marijuana as a legal medicine in emergency situations.  But Dr.  Kilby says the government and its bureaucracy is making it very difficult to get anywhere with his application.

- - An Ontario court judge rejected in August a constitutional challenge by London cannabis-crusader Chris Clay.  But the judge agreed that marijuana is relatively harmless compared with alcohol and tobacco, and he said elected politicians -- not the courts -- must lead the way in establishing public policy on the issue.

The group of buyers' club organizers are willing to risk jail time and criminal records for their cause.  But they are a mellow bunch of cannabis smokers, most of them in their 20s, and they don't appear too stressed about the possibility of being incarcerated.

"If that's what it takes," said Jeanette "Star" Tossounian, a 22-year-old whose mother helped finance her hemp store, Guelph's Seedling Clothing Co.  "Nothing seems to worry me too much.  I'm not just gonna sit back and take this.  I feel I believe in the cause."

"We really don't have a choice," said Peter Young, who is "almost sure" he's 27.  Mr.  Young ( no relation to the group's lawyer ) recently took opened the Organic Traveller in London, a hemporium with a marijuana history museum and library in the back.

Warren Hitzig, the 21-year-old Toronto entrepreneur who is already running a buyers' club, said the group is simply heeding the views of American civil-rights activist Martin Luther King in risking arrest for their cause.  "It takes one person to break down a wall, so that everyone can follow," Mr.  Hitzig said.

Ottawa's hemp store, Crosstown Traffic, has not yet joined the buyers' club.  But owner Mike Foster said he supports the group, and would consider organizing a local club.  Another Ottawa resident, 38-year-old Ron Whalen, says he has been informally supplying people with marijuana for medicinal use for the past year, although he is not affiliated with the activists' group.

Despite the pro-marijuana momentum, succeeding in the political arena will be a challenge.

Political parties have shied away from the issue of decriminalization since the LeDain commission recommended a review in 1972.  The Liberals promised decriminalization in their 1980 throne speech, but didn't follow through.  In 1996, a multi-party Senate committee planned to look at the issue, but relented when the proposition was rejected by party caucuses.

Since November, smoking and growing marijuana for medicinal purposes has been essentially legal in California and Arizona, after voters showed strong support for decriminilization in the last U.S.  election.

In Canada, a buyers' club in Toronto recently failed because it was unable to attract members; the group blamed the law for forcing it to operate in a clandestine fashion.  But with about 100 members, the Cannabis Compassion Club in Vancouver continues to sell marijuana to sick people without harassment from police.

Mr.  Young says police in fact "promote crime" when they enforce existing laws against selling and growing marijuana.  On one hand, Mr.  Young reasons, the Parker ruling suggests that sick people can smoke marijuana to relieve their symptoms.  But since the law doesn't allow anyone to sell it, that forces patients unable to grow it themselves to break the law and buy it on the black market.  "We're trying to stop crime from happening."

"Hopefully, the government will listen," said Ron Hill, who owns Hemptastic stores in Mississauga and Etobicoke.  "But it's not the government -- it's the people who must hear us."

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