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Newshawk: Carey Ker
Pubdate: Wed, 8 Aug 2001
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2001 Southam Inc.
Contact: letters@nationalpost.com
Website: http://www.nationalpost.com/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/286
Author: Diane Francis, National Post
Note: Part 1 of this series is at
http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v01.n1446.a07.html Part 2 is at
http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v01.n1447.a01.html
Cited: BC Compassion Club Society http://www.thecompassionclub.org/
Richard Cowan, POT-TV
http://www.pot-tv.net/archive/series/pottvseries-37-0.html
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/mmjcn.htm (Cannabis - Medicinal - Canada)

ACTING HIGH ABOVE THE LAW

Medicinal Users Of Marijuana And Physicians Both Dislike The Idea Of Health Canada Getting Into The Pot-Dispensing Business: Doctors Don't Want To Be The Gatekeepers Of What Is Essentially Herbal Medicine

Marijuana has emerged as a multi-billion-dollar industry in Canada largely because the United States maintains a vigorous opposition to pot while Canadian authorities turn a blind eye to its cultivation and possession. In the final segment of a three-part series, National Post columnist Diane Francis speaks to people who are leading the charge to legalize marijuana.

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VANCOUVER - The Compassion Club Wellness Centre in the city's rundown Eastside is a leafy oasis where clients can get a massage, acupuncture, naturopathy and as much pot as they want. The day's marijuana menu is listed on a blackboard, with prices ranging from $3 to $10 per gram. Sandal-shod, caftan-clad helpers and a portrait of marijuana maestro Bob Marley, king of reggae, lend the place a 1960s ambience.

"I think I'll have some Afghanistan and some Ruby Indica," says Vicky, who smokes three to five joints a day. Like all the clients, Vicky had to obtain the signature of a physician in order to become a customer. She has pervasive arthritis and says marijuana relieves her pain without causing side effects. After obtaining her marijuana, she enters the smoking room at the back of the club.

"I come here two to three times a week because I prefer Eastern medicine to Western medicine and don't want to become addicted to over-the-counter painkillers," she explains. "This is more natural than popping a lot of pills. I also eat [marijuana] baked goods."v v Non-profit Compassion Clubs such as this one exist across Canada. The number is unknown because anyone can start one; because they are illegal, owners try to remain below the police radar screen. They are an act of collective civil disobedience and operate in open violation of the Criminal Code. But they operate largely without opposition.

That's because the police (as measured by their willingness to turn a blind eye), the public (as measured by opinion polls) and the courts (as measured by the results of several cases) have agreed no one should be denied marijuana on medical grounds.

Last week, Ottawa also signed on, though with some fairly rigorous limits. The federal government said patients who have a year or less to live or have certain debilitating conditions (among them arthritis, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis) can legally grow and smoke their own marijuana. A government pot crop is flourishing in a mine in Flin Flon, Man., and the first harvest will be distributed in the new year.

Patients will also be allowed to grow their own supply or designate someone else to grow it for them.

But the Compassion Clubs were the first through the gate. The
Compassion Club Wellness Centre in Vancouver has been operating since
1997, dispensing illegal marijuana to those who need it.

Founder Hilary Black had become so convinced it was a wonder medicine for those suffering pain and discomfort that she abandoned nursing studies to organize the centre, with help from Marc Emery, a B.C. activist who financed the undertaking through the sale of marijuana seeds.

"I began working in Marc's store and started a survivors' delivery service out of the store. I delivered some to an elderly and bedridden woman with rheumatoid arthritis. She got immediate relief and I got hooked on helping people with hemp. It was a big deal for me. It was inspiring," she says.

The club asks potential customers to ask their physicians to sign a form saying he or she needs marijuana for the relief of discomfort. If the doctor balks, the club accepts the individual on its roster of 1,500 members anyway. A doctor's approval is preferable, though, to prevent people from using the club to get marijuana for recreational use.

New customers are issued a shopping card. They then pick what they want, are given any amount they ask for and a record is kept of what they take. Prices match black-market rates to discourage people from reselling it for a profit.

Ms. Black and others in the Vancouver pot establishment are opposed to Health Canada's initiative to dispense government-grown pot.

"The new regulations won't put any of us out of business because they will create an unnecessary bureaucracy," she says. "Doctors don't know anything about herbal medicine. Besides, many people can't get in to see a specialist.

"These are confiscated seeds, and there's no information about them. We know that certain strains relieve certain symptoms. There is no such thing as generic marijuana," she says. "So they are going to spend money and time unnecessarily just to keep their hands clean, and are taking away someone else's genetic work [confiscated seeds] by doing so. They are stealing the work of a persecuted community for some kind of political agenda."

The Canadian Medical Association also opposes the Health Canada initiative because doctors do not know anything about marijuana or where to get it.

"Doctors cannot be the gatekeepers to the use of marijuana because there has not been the usual testing for dosage and quality," Dr. Peter Barrett, the CMA president, says. "There is no solid evidence but only anecdotal as to its medicinal qualities.

"It's a herb. As to whether it should be decriminalized or not, that's a broader debate for all of society. If it's decriminalized, then doctors don't have to be involved," he says.

But decriminalization, or even outright legalization, is not something Ottawa is ready to do, though polls suggest it would have considerable public support.

Marijuana's next milestone will come this fall, when the Supreme Court of Canada considers a landmark case launched by Randy Caine, of Langley, B.C., and two others. It asks the court to consider whether Canadians have a constitutional right to use cannabis for any reason.

"Randy Caine's case argues the government can't punish consenting adults engaging in an activity that has no proven harm to society," says Mr. Emery, who has financed a portion of the case. "This ruling will apply not only to a majority of herbs, but it will also apply to activities like prostitution and gambling."

Mr. Caine looks like a latter-day hippie. His black hair nearly touches the cellphone attached to his belt, and he sports sandals, jeans and three silver bracelets. Born and raised in Vancouver, he says he smokes one or two joints daily.

"I was busted in June, 1993, with a roach. It pissed me off, even though it was only a $50 fine. A friend, also busted, just paid the fine, but I wouldn't. What upset me, as I sat in the back of the squad car, was a couple with their two young children. They were squatting on the ground and pointing at me as though I was some kind of bad person. I was a husband with two kids, and the only difference between me and a respectable member of society was that I was a pot smoker. I don't preach the virtues of pot. I just think it's bad social policy to make it illegal."

Central to his case is the contention marijuana is less harmful than other, non-banned, substances.

"Tobacco kills 45,000 people per year in Canada," John Conroy, Mr. Caine's lawyer, says. "The second-biggest problem is alcohol, which kills 12,000 per year, way ahead of all illegal drugs, which kill 800 per year. The next biggest drug problem is prescription drugs. Then there's over-the-counter drugs. One year in Canada, there were 10,000 hospital admissions because people took too much Aspirin."

Mr. Conroy believes all drugs should be legalized, but that restrictions should be imposed. For instance, marijuana should be restricted, as are alcohol and tobacco, to use by adults only. Heroin and other hard drugs should be prescribed by doctors only.

Mr. Caine ascribes the shift in opinion about pot to demographics: "We're older, and are the Establishment. We're the generation of the 1960s. Those attitudes they thought had been eradicated were sitting there, percolating. The judiciary is older and so are the politicians.

"Take my case: At 47 years of age, the law can't treat me as a child. I've raised two kids and am celebrating my 25th anniversary, so I fit into all of society's other parameters, and yet the government thinks it can bust me for smoking pot? It's silly."

His lawyer believes British Columbia led the way as the most relaxed jurisdiction in Canada because of its judges.

"B.C. is the most lenient because there were, and are, so many hippies here. But these charges are heard by provincial court judges who are deluged with real crimes. They cannot see sending people to jail for this. Jail is where those committing violent crimes belong," Mr. Conroy says.

Slowly, then, Canada moves toward liberalization of its marijuana laws. Some say it will happen in two years. Others argue there will be a gradual breaking down of enforcement, as has already happened in British Columbia.

Such gradualism occurred in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, several thousand coffee shops are licensed to sell marijuana, and 150 smart shops to sell such psychedelics as peyote and mushrooms. But the Dutch police can still jail someone for possession, and have not removed marijuana from its list of banned substances.

There is evidence this slow, unofficial acceptance is underway here. The Senate has launched a two-year study into drug policy, though outright legalization is unlikely to be undertaken by politicians. But a decision in support of Mr. Caine's case by the Supreme Court could overturn the ban.

This year, Switzerland became the first country to legalize marijuana. Germany has decriminalized marijuana, as have eight U.S. states, including California, New York and Ohio.

But a staunch enemy of the herb is the U.S. federal government, whose drug laws override state law. In the United States, medical marijuana use has been sanctioned for years by Washington, but its hardline attitude toward the herb has meant few patients have availed themselves of it.

"Only 250 Canadians get medical marijuana under the special exemption provisions," Richard Cowan, the Texan host of the Vancouver-based Internet show POT-TV, says. "In the U.S., only seven people get 300 joints a month for glaucoma and nausea."

He believes the highly politicized U.S. justice system and local media are to blame. Sheriffs, judges and prosecutors, who are elected in the United States, curry public favour by going after marijuana cases and racking up high success rates, so they can bill themselves as law-and-order candidates.

"The Americans remain rabid, and the government is deploying the same high-tech strategy it used to go after Commies to now go after weed," Mr. Cowan says. "But Canada is going to make pot legal in two years, I believe, and the use of medical marijuana is the beginning of the end of prohibition here. Then, the Americans will eventually be forced to legalize, too."


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