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March 12 1998 Eye Magazine

eye - 03.12.98

Toronto's new medical pot club
BY NATE HENDLEY
Neev Tapiero takes my coat, tells me he's got food and munchies ready then leads me to the back of the apartment, where he's gathered a small group of medical criminals. Huddled around a coffee table, eating chips and drinking juice, are an intense young man called Warren Hitzig, a teenager named Doug, Doug's mom, Marnie, and a quiet woman named Mary.

Right after I sit down, Doug starts telling me how he smokes "a gram of marijuana" each day through a bong. His mom interrupts only to say that she approves of her son's pot smoking.

Doug's had epilepsy since Grade 8, and finds that marijuana, in conjunction with more traditional anti-seizure medications, relaxes his mind and muscles enough to prevent grand mal seizures. Marnie says, "It's hard for a mom to accept" that her son's a medical pot-head, but has no problem with Doug's unorthodox treatment regime, because it works. "Seeing my son on marijuana convinced me it was a medicine."

Likewise, Mary, who smokes "two joints a day, one at 6 a.m., one at 8 p.m." to ease intense pain caused by arthritis of the knees, hip and back, says her kids are "supportive" of what their mom does. "I had tried pot before, recreationally," Mary recalls, "and all of a sudden it clicked into me that I was moving a lot faster, had more flexibility and felt more comfortable."

It's a big relief for Mary and Doug -- and for Doug's mother -- that they don't have to buy pot from street dealers. Mary and Doug are members of the Medical Marijuana Resource Centre (MMRC), the Toronto chapter of an umbrella group called the Medical Marijuana Centres of Ontario. The latter is an above-ground -- but illegal -- collective run by hemp store owners, caregivers and cannabis activists that "went public" in mid-February. Hitzig runs the Toronto centre, while Tapiero does public relations for the umbrella group, which has either opened, or is planning to open, clubs in Etobicoke, Oakville, London, Guelph, Kitchener, Peterborough and other cities.

"There are three different membership categories," explains Hitzig, who was recently asked to leave school due to his extracurricular cannabis activities. Level one is for people with a doctor's note stating they have HIV, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, cancer or arthritis. Level two is for less serious conditions like migraine headaches and stress, while level three is reserved for "anyone over 65" who'd happen to like some pot, Hitzig states.

Doctors' notes are required for levels one and two, and membership forms can be picked up at hemp stores like the Friendly Stranger and the Toronto Hemp Company or organizations such as People With AIDS. The Toronto club has been unable to find a permanent locale and currently operates "out of my feet and my bag," says Hitzig, who takes orders from clients via a pager.

The group decided to go public largely because of the failure of C.A.L.M. (Cannabis as Legitimate Medicine), a very low-key cannabis club Tapiero briefly ran last summer, before it ran out of money. Relying on word of mouth didn't work at C.A.L.M., so the Toronto MMRC is happy to broadcast its activities in order to both attract clients and raise awareness of medical pot. Surprisingly, neither Tapiero nor Hitzig reports any run-ins with the police, so far.

Dr. John Goodhew is another activist who sees the benefit in going public with his support of medical marijuana. Dr. Goodhew chairs the Toronto HIV Primary Care Physicians Group, a 50-member organization that "collectively treats half of all HIV patients in Ontario" and advocates legalizing medical pot. "We unanimously voted to support medical marijuana on November 21, 1997," Dr. Goodhew explains. "Our stand was based on our collective experience regarding the safety of the drug and its benefits" as an appetite stimulant for AIDS patients.

One of Dr. Goodhew's patients is Jim Wakeford, the former executive director of the Casey House AIDS hospice, who is now dying from the disease. Wakeford smokes pot to increase his appetite and decrease his stress, and is suing the federal government to provide him with a legal supply of the drug.

Dr. Goodhew, however, suspects that the federal Liberals are in no hurry to make marijuana a legal medicine, as it is currently in California and Arizona following state referendums two years ago. That said, the doctor is cheered by the growing public acceptance of both medical pot and marijuana in general. "Look at Ross Rebagliati," he says. "People did not care that he smoked marijuana."

Maybe so, but "Doug," "Marnie" and "Mary" are pseudonyms, and they care quite a bit that I not reveal even where they live -- they can't talk about Doug's pot use in the suburb outside Toronto where he lives. Despite Dr. Goodhew's optimism, there's still a lot of suspicion regarding people who medicate with pot instead of traditional medicines.

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