1,200 med-pot patients, many of whom suffer from life-threatening illnesses that can only be controlled with marijuana, lost their supply of medicine when Ontario police mercilessly raided the Toronto Compassion Centre (TCC) on August 14, 2002. Officers stuck guns in the faces of TCC workers, confiscated more than a thousand dollars in cash, several pounds of marijuana and 448 grams of hash.
Founder Warren Hitzig and manager Zachary Naftolin were thrown behind bars, along with two employees.
“It was a harsh experience,” Hitzig told Cannabis Culture. “I was hanging out with gun smugglers, people were smoking crack in jail, it was absolutely horrific. It is not something I would want to spend the rest of my days doing.”
Hitzig and Naftolin are each charged with two counts of marijuana possession, two counts of hashish possession, one count each of trafficking, and proceeds of crime. Their two employees are also facing marijuana charges.
Some of the recent charges laid against Hitzig and Naftolin date back to a robbery in December, 2001, when four people in ski masks beat up the TCC’s doorperson and made off with medical goodies. The police were called, but instead of defending the club, they finished the work of hooded thugs, grabbing approximately 28 kilos of moldy schwag that was stored in the basement for disposal.
When Cannabis Culture spoke to Hitzig, he was puzzled about why he and his compatriots were being attacked so harshly for providing a compassionate community service, and why the latest police report says that cops only confiscated $600 when he is sure that there was at least $1,600 on the premises.
With the help of pro-pot lawyers Alan Young, Leora Shemesh and Paul Burstein, Hitzig, Naftolin and their two employees were released the next day, with a combined bail surety of $8,000, much of which was provided by Toronto Star writer Barbara Turnbull, a compassionate journalist who was left paralyzed after being shot during a convenience store robbery in 1983. The conditions of Hitzig’s and Naftolin’s bails included staying away from the TCC and avoiding contact with one another, but despite the intended legal sabotage the centre managed to reopen in a limited capacity a few days later.
While TCC organizers were being released, supporters demonstrated outside of the old City Hall, and again the next week outside of the Department of Justice in Toronto.
Since the raid on the Toronto Compassion Centre, lawyers Young and Shemesh have been investigating why it happened, who issued the orders, and what it means for med-pot clubs across Canada.
“One of the mysteries is ‘the why,'” mused Young, curiously. “I am aware that there were meetings, discussions and consultations, and the decision was not a local police initiative. As to who issued the marching orders, that will remain a mystery until we get to the trial. And I will pursue that, because if I can demonstrate there’s been political interference, then the judge might issue a stay of proceedings. To be frank, however, I don’t need a stay, because there’s not a jury in the province that will convict these young people.”
TCC founder Hitzig and others speculate that the raid may have been prompted by Hitzig’s participation in Young and Shemesh’s gutsy lawsuit against the federal government, in which they are suing the feds for forcing legal medical marijuana users to either grow their own medicine or obtain it illegally (CC#39, Canada’s med-pot lawsuit).
“Saying people can use medicinal marijuana and then telling them to grow it themselves,” said Young, “is like asking people who need antibiotics to grow their own penicillin from bread.” Paradoxically, it is the government’s very failure to provide medical buds that makes compassion centres a necessity.
No gov’t bud
Compassion club directors across Canada are feeling weary. So far, Canadian clubs have enjoyed a limited degree of immunity from police, but the political winds may be shifting.
Last August, Minister of Health Anne McLellan announced that 250 kg of pot grown by the Canadian Government would not be distributed to med-pot exemptees as earlier planned. Since replacing Allan Rock as Minister of Health, McLellan has dissed her predecessor’s work, claiming the government buds are poor quality, and not good enough for the sick and dying patients. Instead, she has announced the herb will only be used for research on animal subjects. No human Canadians will get to smoke the government-grown bud.
Scientists studying medical pot’s effects on humans at the Community Research Initiative of Toronto and the McGill Pain Centre in Montreal will have to try to get their supply from elsewhere than their own government’s multi-million grow-op ? possibly the US government’s official supplier at the University of Mississippi, renowned for their low-potency schwag.
Raids in BC
The TCC has not been the only club to suffer a recent raid. The Cannabis Buyers Club in Victoria, BC, has been raided four times since last January, most recently on June 21, 2002. Altogether police have seized tens of thousands of dollars in cash and pot, devastating the club and leaving the club’s founder, Ted Smith, with multiple marijuana charges.
The Sunshine Coast Compassion Club in Gibsons, BC, was raided on August 23, 2002; club founder Lisa Kirkman and her three-month old baby were held by RCMP for more than two hours.
Kirkman immediately re-opened after the first raid, announcing on her website that she would continue to serve her 70 members on the coast and across Canada. “We’ve been busted, but we’re still open!” she proclaimed, continuing to offer med-pot for sale in person and via mail-order within Canada.
Constable Kim Hall, one of the arresting officers, returned to the club on August 30, brandishing a print-out of the club’s website. “We know about your website,” Hall told Kirkman. “If you continue to conduct illegal activities from this location we will arrest you and put you in jail for two months until your court date on October 22nd.”
With two months in jail and separation from her newborn looming against her, Kirkman has passed the club’s management to a small group of members and local activists ? its future is fragile.
There may still be a happy ending to the story of compassion clubs as told in the courts, which have demonstrated a solid willingness to defend medical marijuana from government absurdities. The Vancouver Island Compassion Society was raided by police last winter after the club’s founder, Phil Lucas, reported a break-in to police. Yet in early July Lucas received an absolute discharge on cannabis charges related to selling med-pot, despite his guilty plea.
“The federal government has so far been unable to ensure any legal supply of marijuana to those whom Health Canada thinks need it as therapy,” said Judge Higinbotham in his ruling. “This is a particular hardship for those who cannot grow it.”
With the courts onside, lawyer Alan Young believes police raids are a futile waste of effort and taxpayers’ money.
“In a couple weeks after a raid it is business as usual,” said Young. “It is as though police had done nothing. This whole strategy of terror and destruction simply backfires.”
Indeed, it is difficult to understand why police still arrest compassion club operators. Perhaps they hope to convince the public that persecuting the sick and dying in the name of the war on drugs is a community service.