Newshawk: Carey Ker
Pubdate: Wed, 8 Aug 2001
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2001 Southam Inc.
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
Cited: BC Compassion Club Society http://www.thecompassionclub.org/
Richard Cowan, POT-TV
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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.
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
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
"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