Just months after federal cabinet ministers and MPs called for a national debate on medical marijuana, it appears that regulations are already in the offing. And while Health Canada develops its new policy, buyers’ clubs are sprouting fast to fill the gap.
Showdown with the PM
For over 18 years, Lynn Harichy discreetly used marijuana to alleviate some of the debilitating symptoms of multiple sclerosis. However, after becoming increasingly frustrated with the black market and the legal risks involved in obtaining her medicine, the London, Ontario activist launched a very public crusade last year.
The petite mother and grandmother began committing acts of civil disobedience that soon led to her arrest and a constitutional challenge. She also devoted much of her time to lobbying local and federal politicians with a stubborn persistence. Now, after being stonewalled by faceless government bureaucrats dispensing endless form letter replies, her voice is finally being heard.
At the end of February, Prime Minister Jean Chretien spent a full day touring London. When he arrived at a local high school, Harichy was patiently waiting outside, placard held high. The Prime Minister shook hands with her husband, and then she seized the moment by making a brief, impassioned plea for legal reforms. “He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘We are looking into it.'” As he walked away, she cried out, “Don’t send me to jail, I am not a criminal?”
Though lasting but a few seconds, the encounter was one for which Harichy had been waiting a long time. She felt encouraged, and a few weeks later she targeted federal Minister of Health Allan Rock.
After learning that Rock was heading to Tillsonburg to announce the legalization of industrial hemp, Harichy decided to drive there and deliver her message in person. Lacking an invitation to the event, Harichy simply identified herself to a Health Canada lackey and was instantly recognized from her frequent letters to their office. With little fanfare, an impromptu meeting was arranged and she soon found herself face to face with the Minister.
Rock expressed familiarity with Harichy’s legal challenge, and appeared sympathetic when she described plans for her latest act of civil disobedience: a medical marijuana buyers’ club. “I told him I want to give patients an opportunity to get it without having to buy it off the street, and that I don’t want to go to jail for it. He said they are very, very close to a resolution.”
Rock confirmed his position when contacted by the London Free Press. “I told her we are taking her position very seriously,” the paper quoted him as saying.
Harichy was pleased with his response. “It is going to be legalized,” she said. “He’s going to send me a letter of confirmation.” She also said that Rock is working with Justice Minister Anne McLellan to develop a plan that will allow pharmaceutical companies to supply legitimate patients with medicinal cannabis. In the meantime, Harichy plans to go ahead with her buyers’ club. Applications are already being distributed, and deliveries are expected to begin by April.
An urgent and compelling need
Harichy’s club is one of a number that recently joined forces in Ontario. Encouraged by the success of Vancouver’s Cannabis Compassion Club, activists held a press conference in February and announced that they will supply patients with marijuana until the government establishes its legal distribution system. They also sent a letter to Allan Rock’s office informing the government of their intentions, but so far there has been no reply.
Constitutional law guru Alan Young, a law professor at Osgoode Hall in Toronto, drafted the letter on behalf of the group and wrote that the need for a distribution system is “urgent and compelling.” However, Young told the Ottawa Citizen that “any way you slice or dice it this is probably an illegal activity? We would all prefer to do this legally, but failing that, civil disobedience will be the path to take.”
A Toronto club is currently doing deliveries and searching for a friendly landlord in the hopes of finding a permanent home. Deliveries are also underway in Mississauga and Oakville, and clubs are being planned for Guelph, Kitchener and Peterborough. An Ottawa man has also been openly supplying patients for some time, but isn’t a part of the coalition.
No witch hunt
Though authorities say they’re not turning a blind eye, it’s highly unlikely the buyers’ clubs will meet with any significant police harassment, considering the current political climate. An Angus Reid poll last fall found that 83% of Canadians support medical marijuana, and politicians at all levels have taken note. When the Ottawa Citizen reported on a local underground club last November, the RCMP initially took a hard line but soon backed off after a swift public outcry.
The Vancouver club has operated without incident for over a year, and police spokesperson Anne Drennan said they would only get involved if operators were selling to children or non-medical users. “We have never focused on or taken issue with medicinal marijuana groups,” she said.
An RCMP spokesman agreed that such clubs are a low priority. “I don’t believe that we will be going out on a witch-hunt,” said Cpl Marc Richer. “If you tell me there’s a pot [club]on the corner, and 350 grams of heroin next door ? guess where we’re going?”
Very stupid people
Surprisingly, the strongest backlash to the fledgling clubs has come from police in Toronto, where a court recently declared that medical users have the constitutional right to possess and use cannabis. Justice Patrick Sheppard ruled that epileptic Terry Parker can legally possess and grow marijuana, but until the case reaches a higher court the decision doesn’t protect other patients. Sheppard also ordered police to return Parker’s pot plants, but so far they have refused.
In response to the recent press surrounding buyers’ clubs, Toronto drug squad detective Rick Chase laughed and said, “There are some very stupid people out there, aren’t there? Until the law is changed, it’s still against the law to possess this stuff.”
Staff Sgt Kevin Chalk of Waterloo regional police holds a similar view, suggesting the clubs won’t simply be ignored. “Their argument is with the legislators,” he said. “If police do decide to act,” Chalk says, “we would be doing our duty and enforcing the law.”
An activist at every turn
Such bravado doesn’t phase the new generation of pot crusaders. “We’re not going to be hiding,” said Pete Young, a hemp store owner helping to organize the London club with Lynn Harichy. Like Harichy, he’s prepared to accept the risks involved in supplying the local patients: “If they’re going to bust us, fine ? but the next day we’ll be open again.”
With rumours of more clubs opening throughout the country, tensions between police and medical marijuana providers are bound to arise occasionally. But civil disobedience is a temporary stopgap as the pressure mounts for the government to introduce timely legislation.
The Bloc Quebecois is now championing the cause from within the House of Commons (see below). With determined activists like Lynn Harichy waiting for them at every public appearance, the Feds must have realized that this issue isn’t going away.
On March 10, for the first time in years, medical marijuana was debated in the House of Commons. The following is a transcript from the Parliamentary record:
DECRIMINALIZATION OF MARIJUANA
Mr. Bernard Bigras (Rosemont, BQ): Mr. Speaker, my question is for the Minister of Health. Polls tell us that a majority of Canadians and Quebeckers now support decriminalizing marijuana for medical purposes.
Is the minister prepared to set up a parliamentary committee to conduct an in-depth review of this issue, so that recommendations can be made regarding the decriminalization of marijuana for medical purposes?
Hon. Allan Rock (Minister of Health): Mr. Speaker, the issue is under consideration by my department and by the Department of Justice. Along with my colleague, we are reviewing all the aspects of the issue, particularly the use of marijuana for medical purposes. We hope to present our policy in the coming months.
Mr. Bernard Bigras (Rosemont, BQ): Mr. Speaker, my supplementary is for the Minister of Justice.
Will the minister recognize that, by refusing to take a stand and to assume her responsibilities in this matter, she is leaving it up to the courts to make the decision?
Hon. Anne McLellan (Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada): Mr. Speaker, I would not concede that I am shirking my responsibility in this matter. In fact, as the Minister of Health has indicated, he and I have put our officials to work to develop a position that we will bring forward for consideration by all members of the House.
I think the Minister of Health and I concede that the possible decriminalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes is an important issue. It is one that we are studying. It is one that we are going to continue to look at.