The Nature of Weed
When David Suzuki and the crew from his renowned documentary series The Nature of Things came to Vancouver's Compassion Club to do a story on medical marijuana, they found themselves knee-deep in the wilds of West-coast weed, at the foot of the fountain of health.
The Compassion Club, founded by Hilary Black, looks like a rainforest temple. Tribal art smiles gracefully on rooms decorated with vapourizers, couches and the occasional waterfall of plants. In this environment, the toking of members and whirring of fans in the smoking lounge sound like jungle chatter.
Like any jungle, there is beauty. The club is staffed solely with women, who have all dedicated themselves to healing. Hilary Black stands out as a powerful young mother lion, protecting the club and its members. Erenxx, "a Jackaline of all trades" is like a tree, holding up the administrative weight of the club. Jasmyn, the club's herbalist, emanates educated competence, a butterfly attracted by flower essences and aromatherapeutic techniques. Jill, in charge of distribution, prowls the club like a happy panther, mood control for the sick and dying. Leigh-Ann, who does Reiki, describes herself as a "dolphin", for whom work and play are not always distinct. Davin describes herself as a "grumpy faerie", whose healing art chose her more than she chose it.
But, like any jungle, there are also predators. Minutes after Suzuki arrives at the club, there is an ominous telephone message. "The RCMP has you under surveillance for distribution of an illegal substance," says an anonymous caller. "Anyone who wishes to avoid arrest should leave immediately."
The comforting surroundings pleasantly compliment the professionalism of the club, its design and its operators. Threats of police harassment do not scare them. They have a mission to distribute marijuana to the ill.
A staff member recounted that a health inspector had already passed through the club, tipped off by another anonymous call.
"He told us to get a stainless-steel sink and to distribute marijuana with tongs. Then he left."
Meanwhile, Suzuki is mixing with the club's members as the camera crew records. Everyone eventually settles into the lounge and lights huge healing hemp zeppelins. Hilary Black, founder of the club, brings a few people forward to present their stories to Suzuki. What he discovers startles him.
The Shaking Stops
"How often do you smoke?" asks Suzuki, turning to young man named Greg Cooper. Greg is shaking uncontrollably on the couch between Suzuki and Hilary Black.
"I have what doctors call a profound seizure case. They said I would be in a wheelchair," says Cooper, his voice echoing with the tremors of Multiple Sclerosis. He had been diagnosed only months ago.
"I want to see what happens when he smokes," says Suzuki.
"I remember when you first came into the club," Black says, turning to Cooper, "it seemed the thing that helped most was one our staff touching you."
"If I have a beautiful woman touching me ?" he says, then the trembling becomes too much. Still, he manages a shrug and a smile.
The joint gets lit, and Vicci Nickleson, another MS sufferer, holds it to Cooper's lips as he tokes. And tokes. And tokes.
"Stop inhaling now!" Suzuki says, shocked at Cooper's lung capacity, "Jeez, what a long drag that is!"
As the joint leaves his lips, Cooper's shaking has eased by more than half. He has another toke.
"The effect is very dramatic," Suzuki narrates, "already after two tokes. How long will it last?"
"Anywhere from a couple of hours till tomorrow," Cooper responds. He has stopped shaking and is still now.
Vicci Nickleson has been an MS sufferer for over nine years, but she also has cerebral palsey and various other muscle, joint and nerve disorders. She uses marijuana to control her diseases. Her wheelchair and her mellow, cannabis-cultured mannerisms deceive people as to her awesome strength.
"I have trained for nine years with MS,"she says, turning to Suzuki and rolling up her sleeve, "I have arms more like a man's than a woman's."
Her biceps flex convincingly at the camera, while David Suzuki's eyebrows climb his forehead in astonishment.
Next, Nickleson takes a box from under the coffee table and pulls a weighty wad of medals from it.
"She's not just a racer, she's a champion!" observes Black. "She won gold at the BC games."
"Look at the camera and tell Mr Chretien," says Suzuki. Nickleson takes the opportunity to tell the Prime Minister of Canada the benefits of the healing herb, and asks him to make it legal.
Government Sells Out
David Suzuki, after seeing with his own eyes the amazing effects of medical marijuana, turns to Hilary Black for a few questions. He wonders about how much research has been done on the effects of various strains of marijuana.
After explaining the basic difference between Indica and Sativa, she hits on an area that is the potential future of marijuana research.
"One strain, for someone with MS," says Black, "will calm them down. With a different person that same strain may not help at all. So there is a lot of experimentation."
Around the world, it has become evident that certain strains are better for certain illnesses. This means that a glaucoma patient may benefit from a different variety of pot than an MS sufferer. In some cases, two people with the same illness may each benefit more from different strains of cannabis.
The conclusion seems to be that there is no single ingredient in marijuana that is solely responsible for its healing powers, but rather it is the mix of various ingredients present in the herb which brings relief. Suzuki picks up on the implications immediately.
"I'm fascinated by what Hilary was saying about varieties," says Suzuki. "The pharmaceutical companies don't consider the complex mix of chemicals. They try to isolate one, and that doesn't take account of the complex mix."
Greg Cooper speaks to the camera. "I tried the [synthetic] THC pills at four times the prescribed dose? nothing."
David Suzuki nods his head and continues. "If you took a strain of marijuana, and tested it, it's not the THC, but all of the things together that make it good medicine. But the pharmaceuticals take THC and make it into a pill and it makes you go to sleep? or does nothing at all."
"The problem," Suzuki says, "is that we have a government in the pocket of big business and big business doesn't give a damn."
You might think that the Compassion Club would be subject to regular police oppression. It was one of the questions David Suzuki asked.
"No," responds Hilary Black, "We've been in the Vancouver Sun in an article entitled 'RCMP turns a blind eye to medical marijuana club' and in that article the RCMP said they didn't care. If we were just doing medical marijuana, they would leave us alone."
The Compassion Club has been operating since April of 1997, and the only opposition has been from a few isolated, irrational members of the community. There was the anonymous caller, with the false information about police surveillance. There was the landlord who kicked them out of their former location, which led to their inhabiting their current excellent location, tucked away yet easily accessible from a major downtown street.
Other than these minor provocations, the Club has been free to fulfil its mandate of providing safe medicinal marijuana to sick people, reducing the costs and risks associated with street deals. The club operates strictly on a not-for-profit basis, and has over 400 active members.
The Compassion Club is overwhelmed with members, and is only accepting people with serious illnesses, like the terminally ill. Please don't call unless you are in dire need or would like to donate money or medicinal marijuana to their good cause.
The Compassion Club: Little Italy Postal Outlet, Box 21550, Vancouver, BC, V5N 5T5; tel (604) 875-0448