Peace Magazine : Issue 40 : Released March 2004
Story: Morgan Gerard
Click on the following thumbnails to see the article in .jpgs
The second you step into the Toronto
Compassion Centre you get the drift. Literally.
Inside this city’s version of a medical marijuana
club, the word ‘wafting’ doesn’t do justice
to the olfactory bliss that greets those buzzed
through the security door. With no sign of
bubbling bongs or burning spliffs, ‘total
permeation’ seems a more fitting description.
Marijuana is much more than a smell in here,
it’s a physical presence.
In the cramped waiting room that’s monitored by staff through a secure
window, the one couch and chair are so far beyond the Febreeze treatment
you’ll probably catch a contact high just from sitting down. Two men in their
early forties are sitting patiently in them, both waiting their turns to be
summoned into the room from which an older woman has just emerged.
Beyond the weed factor, I don’t ask why they’re here. Like every member of the
Toronto Compassion Centre (TCC), these guys have a disability or chronic
illness (itself a disability) and are here to, basically, pick up their prescription, go
home, and smoke it.
But this is not your local pharmacy. Once inside, they’ll sit across a desk
from Jim who, in addition to providing valuable consultation services, will
sell them a regulated quantity of the finest cannabis products available in
Toronto. Apollo 11, M-39, White Flower, Blueberry, Blueberry Bubblegum,
Hawaiian, Afghani Skunk Cross, a black and blonde hash, and a selection of
cannabis-infused baked goods are just some of what’s on the menu today.
Also, Jim is introducing anyone who isn’t familiar with it to The Volcano, the
latest wunder-tech innovation from Germany that, for $870 plus tax, lets you
vapourize your weed and inhale a smoke-free concentration of pure THC.
Currently, the TCC has thirteen hundred members who purchase cannabis
products from Jim and his colleagues. Some qualify for membership because
they hold Health Canada’s increasingly inaccessible stamp of approval to smoke
and possess cannabis through the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations
(MMAR). Others have doctors who have written a note stating specifically that
they believe cannabis will be beneficial to the patient. But most are simply
people living with cancer, crohns, AIDS/HIV, arthritis, epilepsy, fibromyalgia,
glaucoma, hepatitis C (active), multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy,
paraplegia, quadriplegia, and/or intractable pain who have passed along a
doctor’s diagnosis, had that doctor and his or her diagnosis confirmed through
a TCC screening process, and met their application requirements.
If all this sounds like victory in the legal access to or decriminalization of
marijuana in Canada, think again. According to Dominic Cramer, one of the
centre’s many co-founders, the only answers he can provide to questions about who
can smoke weed and who can supply weed are the one’s he’s been able to decipher
from the arcane decisions of recent civil and criminal cases involving the TCC.
"The legal battles have been like a confusing exercise in futility," says Cramer,
whose introduction to marijuana activism began in 1994 when he opened the
Toronto Hemp Company, an industrial hemp and smoke-related shop on Yonge
Street. "Every time we go to court we get a beneficial decision. The judges do
agree with us but only to a point where they make demands on the government
that the government just sort of laughs off."
In part, Cramer is referring to an October 2003 ruling by the Ontario Appellate
Court that found Health Canada’s MMAR program unconstitutional. Having
already instructed the government in a previous ruling to make cannabis
available to the six-hundred plus Canadians to whom they had already issued
legal exemptions, the feds did what they usually do when it comes to pivotal issues
of conscience: dropped the ball. Or, more accurately, they never really picked it up
- with or without their much-touted medical mine weed from Manitoba.
"Because the government says it has
started distributing marijuana to MMARexemptees. But, in reality, they haven’t."
"It’s a mistake to assume that we have a federally-instituted,
legalized marijuana situation where people can get access to a
quality of marijuana being grown and distributed from a mine in
Manitoba," says Cramer. "That is mostly nonsense. Even for
people who have an MMAR exemption there is no suitable access
because the quality of the marijuana from the mine is crap.
What’s growing in the mine is fine but then they adulterate it."
In contrast to the feds, whose Manitoba weed has been described
by those who’ve sampled it as, at best, bush and, at worst,
hazardous, the TCC gets its supply from a network of experienced
independent growers whose knowledge of strain selection and
diversification has produced varieties of marijuana best suited to
alleviating specific symptoms.
"There is an important strain-symptom connection," says Cramer.
"Generally this involves the distinction between sativa strains that
have a high level of THC and the indicas which have a lower THC
but are higher in other canabanoids. Indicas like the M-39 effect
the body more and are better suited to members looking for pain
With strains such as M-39 being offered on the menu at a much
discounted price per gram than one would spend for an inferior,
commercial version, it’s no surprise that MMAR exemptees and
non-exempt medical users alike are turning more and more to the
TCC to provide them with the quality product the government
flopped. That brings us to our next case.
After almost four years of operating in three locations across
Toronto, police raided the TCC in August 2002 and arrested seven
employees for possession and trafficking, including the centre’s
founder Warren Hitzig. Noting that they were providing legal
exemptees with their constitutional right to the marijuana that the
government was failing to deliver, prosecutors dismissed all
charges late this January. While no jail time is good news for TCC
employees, any victory celebration for the medical marijuana
movement was dampened after an announcement by the Ontario
justice department’s director of criminal prosecutions that more
arrests could follow.
"This is yet another piece of mud in a really muddy situation," says
Cramer. "It’s really confusing because the crown attorney himself
has stated that compassion clubs are, if not more than ever, still
open to prosecution. Why? Because the government says it
has started distributing marijuana to MMAR exemptees. But, in
reality, they haven’t."
So the TCC goes on, just as it did during the seventeen months of
the Hitzig et al case. How much the crown is willing to test the
public and the courts with another case remains to be seen.
Unfortunately, the signs are not exactly positive. With a new breed
of conservative government cloaked in Liberal clothing and a
major crackdown on marijuana grow-ops being launched through
the so-called Green Tide Summit, the TCC and its network of
independent and committed growers continue to operate in the
greyest regions of the law. Until the federal government shows
real progress on the issue of medical marijuana, however,
Dominic Cramer says little will change.
"There is no shutting it down. There are thirteen hundred
severely ill people that really, hugely, enormously benefit from
marijuana as medicine and it’s such a drastic and important thing
to get it to them. Right now, there is no alternative."
For more information on the Toronto Compassion Centre
including membership, a time line of court cases, or to donate to
the centre’s legal defence fund visit www.torontohemp.com.
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