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
"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,
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
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.