Canada's med-pot push
Canada moved a few steps closer to legalizing medicinal marijuana last July, with a major court decision declaring Canada's marijuana laws unconstitutional.
The case involved epileptic Terry Parker, who has been fighting for his right to use marijuana for decades (see sidebar). Ontario's highest court ruled that Canada's law against marijuana was too restrictive, and the judge gave Parliament one year to rewrite the law to accommodate med-pot usage, or else pot-possession prohibition would be erased from the Criminal Code. The judge also granted Terry Parker the immediate right to use medicinal marijuana.
As this issue went to press the government had yet to file an appeal to Canada's Supreme Court, but seemed likely to do so before the September 29 deadline. Yet in a mid-September press release, Health Canada announced that an appeal would "not detract from the Government's commitment to create a framework that will support those who need marihuana for medical purposes."
The Canadian government continues to slowly hand out personal permissions to consume and grow medicinal marijuana. There are now over 70 people who have been specifically "exempted" from the laws against marijuana by Allan Rock, Minister of Health. The vast majority of applications for exempt status have been rejected. Those that are approved are permitted to cultivate three mature plants and four immature plants at one time, and to produce only 30 grams of bud per mature plant. While away from their grow-op they are allowed to possess up to 30 grams of bud. The exemption specifically forbids production of "derivatives of marijuana" such as hash or pot-butter.
According to Aaron Harnett, Terry Parker's lawyer, "there are hundreds of people still waiting, who have never received any response to their applications." Further, many of those who have received their exemptions are not at all satisfied. Exemptees complain that the system is a bureaucratic nightmare, and that their doctors have become swamped with federal paperwork, making them reluctant to recommend medicinal pot for others.
Also, exemptees must acquire their own, illegal source for seeds or cuttings to start their garden. The government does not provide them with any cultivation advice, equipment, or other assistance. Few patients are qualified growers ? having a serious illness doesn't automatically make you an expert in cannabis cultivation. Exemptions are temporary and must be renewed every few months, creating further bureaucratic boondoggle.
Some exemptees have been in the media, openly criticizing the entire process. Jim Wakeford, the Ontario AIDS patient whose lawsuit forced the government to make him Canada's first exemptee, is appealing in court for the feds to provide him with the medicinal pot he needs. "In May 1999 I was granted an exemption to use and cultivate marijuana," said Wakeford in an August online chat.?"My appeal was abandoned when I was granted the Section 56 exemption from the Minister.?Neither of those exemptions gives me legal access to marijuana.?I can't get seeds or clones legally, nor does it give care providers immunity. Two of my caregivers have been busted and one had his crop cleared out.?One was convicted of trafficking for selling to me and other sick people.?The appeal comes from April this year, when I went back to court to get legal access and protection for care providers.?The judge ruled that I didn't need help and I should continue to use the black market.?That's what I'm appealing if I can raise the $20,000 I need."
Jean-Charles Pariseau, a Quebec sufferer of AIDS, epilepsy, anemia and parasitic infection, received his exemption at the same time as Wakeford, and plans on staging an October Parliament Hill protest against the restrictive measures he faces. Pariseau's original exemption did not contain the three mature plant limit, but his renewed exemption does. Pariseau says he needs to smoke about four grams of pot every day. He also claims that he has a "black thumb" and has killed many plants. "I'm almost out of marijuana," said Pariseau, "and virtually broke with debts I can't pay. My hydro bill is almost $300 to grow three plants with lighting that could have grown 85."
In March 1999, a grower who provided medical pot for Pariseau and others in need was raided and arrested. He is now serving a one year conditional sentence, and is not allowed to contact Pariseau.
Bob Burrill, an exemptee living near Edmonton, explains that he has been trying to get approval to grow more plants. "On July 10 I faxed Health Canada and asked for 25 flowering, 25 immature, and 3 mother plants. But they have yet to get back to me. I called again on September 15, but they haven't returned my call." This delayed response is typical of a process which is very frustrating for the sick and dying to pursue.
Robert Brown, who suffers from Hepatitis C and cancer, had his grow room raided and his grow equipment seized in December 1998. He was granted an exemption in January 2000, after staging a protest on Parliament Hill. Charges against Brown and his wife Linda were stayed in May, which is not the same as having the charges dropped outright. The stay means that Brown cannot travel to the US. "I think it is an obscenity that they are staying the charges," Brown told the Ottawa Citizen. "If the charges are stayed ... nobody has to answer for the way we have been mistreated." Brown claims he needs 30 plants to meet his medical needs.
Intercepted and misdirected
Some aspects of the story have become almost farcical. The Vancouver Compassion Club, which serves over 1200 clients with medicinal buds (and a variety of other therapies), announced that they would provide free medical pot to any exemptee that contacted them. They have since been mailing buds across Canada, and some of their shipments have been intercepted.
Police intercepted a 21 gram med-pot package in April, destined for exemptee Catherine Devries in Kitchener, Ontario. Cops refused to give Devries the buds even afer they had confirmed her legal status, claiming that handing over her medicine would constitute trafficking. Devries got a court order forcing the cops to give her back her medicine, toking up outside the courthouse once they finally forked over the herb.
Police also intercepted a package headed for Jim Wakeford, and returned it only after he too went to court. Exemptee Bill Palmer in Toronto also had his shipment seized, and on September 12 he also got a court order ordering police to return his buds. But Ontario police then claimed that they had accidentally given Palmer's pot to Wakeford, which Wakeford denied.
Health Canada is sponsoring "research activities to evaluate the safety and efficacy of smoked marihuana and of cannabinoids." They expect these studies to take five long years. The pot for these studies will be grown in Canada by a single supplier, who will be chosen from among the applications received over the summer. Health Canada says it will have the five-year contract for "standardized, affordable, research-grade marihuana" in place by the fall of 2000. The actual "clinical trials" will be starting up sometime in 2001, and will involve a number of different independent research projects.
Over a dozen of Canada's medical pot clubs have banded together into an organization called the Canadian Cannabis Coalition (CCC). In an open letter to Allan Rock, the CCC decries the proposed clinical trials, complaining that "the tests currently being applied to marijuana are those intended for synthetic drugs. Cannabis should not have to pass these extensive and expensive tests for approval." And why not? Because the criteria for other herbal medicines to be accepted in Canada is only that they must demonstrate "a history of use in other countries or in aboriginal cultures," and marijuana clearly fits that criteria.
The CCC also complains that the research criteria are too narrow in a number of areas. The ask that the clinical trials should test marijuana's effectiveness for ailments like stress, depression, fatigue and insomnia. They recommend that alternative ingestion methods should be tested, such as cannabis teas and tinctures, and the use of vaporizers and water pipes. They also recommend that the clinical trials include research into the difference between organically and synthetically fertilized plants, and that experienced, small-scale pot growers not be excluded from the production process.
The CCC statement notes that the government is contracting for pot with a THC range of 6-8%, while they claim "high potency cannabis contains at least 10% THC." They offer that "'the most potent possible' could be a new safety standard for medical marijuana."
So it is with a great deal of confusion, controversy and foot-dragging that medicinal marijuana is making progress in Canada. Federal officials are doing their utmost to figure out how to accommodate rising political pressure to allow the sick and dying to get access to medical pot, while still fitting this natural herb into the pharmaceutical model of medicine. While research into cannabis extracts should be encouraged, access to the whole plant medicine should not be denied to anyone, especially for those whom it means the difference between life and death.
? The Honourable Allan Rock, Minister of Health, 21st Floor, Jeanne-Mance Building, Tunney's Pasture, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0K9
In 1987, epileptic Terry Parker was charged with possession of marijuana, but the judge accepted Parker's plea of "medical necessity" and acquitted him of possession charges, thus making him Canada's first semi-legal marijuana user. A year later the feds appealed the decision, and Parker won again.
Despite the court decisions, in July 1996 Metropolitan Toronto police raided Parker's apartment under suspicion that he was growing pot. They found 71 plants, and charged him with possession, cultivation, and trafficking.
Since the courts had already accepted Parker's use of marijuana as a medical necessity, Harnett argued that Parker's rights were violated when police seized his plants and charged him.
In December 1997, the Ontario Court of Justice accepted Parker's defence and found him not guilty of possession and cultivation of marijuana, by reason of medical necessity. He was found guilty of trafficking after admitting he had given buds to other sick friends. The judge even ruled that Parker's pot plants should be returned, although the police failed to do so. The decision made headlines across Canada.
The feds appealed the decision to the Ontario Court of Appeal, Ontario's highest court. In July 2000, the judge ruled that Canada's law against marijuana was unconstitutional, and granted Terry Parker the right to use medicinal marijuana. The judge also ruled that Parliament had one year to rewrite Canada's marijuana laws to accommodate med-pot usage, or else the pot-prohibition law would be erased from the Criminal Code.
The Parker case had been combined with the Chris Clay constitutional challenge. Clay was charged in 1995 after selling cannabis seedlings from his London, Ontario hemp store. The judges agreed with the lower court, that marijuana is harmless and that pot-prohibition is based upon irrationality and racism. Nevertheless, the court dismissed his appeal against his 1997 conviction.