Pubdate: Wed, 09 May 2007
Source: Monday Magazine (CN BC)
Copyright: 2007 Monday Publications
Author: Andrew MacLeod
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal - Canada)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Busted Growers Aim To Smoke Health Canada Program

If Victoria deputy police chief Bill Naughton takes the stand in a 
drug trial starting this week, he will testify on behalf of two men 
accused of growing marijuana. While it's strange for a police officer 
to defend alleged pot growers in court--and it's not yet certain he 
will appear--the grow-op in question was an unusual one.

West Shore RCMP officers arrested Michael Swallow and Mathew Beren 
during a May, 2004, raid of an East Sooke site that provided high 
quality cannabis to the Vancouver Island Compassion Society. The 
VICS, in turn, supplied the cannabis from the site to patients who 
were using it to treat various ailments.

"This was different from your normal grow-op," says Philippe Lucas, 
VICS executive director and a former city council candidate. "We 
don't deny anything we're doing. It's the questions of why and how 
that are the main issues."

Lucas says Swallow was just visiting the facility and not actually 
involved. RCMP officers charged Swallow and Berens with production of 
marijuana and with possession of more than three kilograms of the 
drug for the purpose of trafficking.

For several years medical marijuana has existed in a convoluted legal 
grey area. Since a 2001 decision, says Kirk Tousaw, a Vancouver 
lawyer working on the case, Canada's prohibition laws have been 
deemed constitutional only as long as there is an adequate program in 
place to provide marijuana to medical users. The program is in place, 
he says, but it's not good.

"It's still tremendously difficult for people to become licensed 
medical marijuana users and it's still very hard for people to access 
a quality supply of medicine," says Tousaw, who is a board member of 
the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. The government started buying 
marijuana grown in an abandoned mine in Manitoba and supplying it to 
some registered medical marijuana users. "We don't think the 
government's monopoly supplier--which only produces a single strain 
that's been the subject of some criticisms by users--we don't think 
that's good enough for the very sick people who use medical marijuana 
in this country."

In 2003 the courts ordered Health Canada to make changes to its 
medical marijuana program that Tousaw says have not yet been made. 
"We're now five or six years into this program and it's still not 
doing the job it needs to do for sick people in this country," he says.

A spokesperson for Health Canada did not return calls by press time.

Lucas says the VICS legal team will argue the facility was filling a 
legally-recognized need the government was unable to fill. "Our goal 
is to illustrate the problems with the federal medical marijuana 
program." He describes the site, which cost around $40,000 to start, 
as a "white labcoat" operation where growers developed strains to 
treat particular conditions. If they had two strains that worked well 
for chronic pain, for instance, they would breed them together to see 
if they could create a plant that did an even better job.

"We lost about four or five years of strain research just through 
that raid," says Lucas. RCMP officers destroyed some 900 plants. 
"They chopped and took everything."

Two officers who were at the raid declined to comment while the case 
is before the courts.

The facility also grew marijuana to use in clinical trials, and hemp, 
with none of the high-causing active ingredient THC, to use as a 
placebo in VICS research. The growers even had plants growing from 
seeds provided by the federal government to show that better growing 
techniques could improve the product Health Canada was offering 
medical marijuana users. "It didn't have to be as poor quality as 
what they were sending out," says Lucas.

At the time of the raid, the VICS was helping over 400 patients. It 
was one of two clubs in Victoria providing medical marijuana in the 
city, and one of a handful of such groups across the country. Since 
the raid VICS has grown to some 660 patients, but it was driven back 
to buying cannabis on the black market at a higher cost.

Lucas says if deputy chief Naughton testifies, it will be to talk 
about the advantages of supplying marijuana to medical users in a way 
that doesn't require them to buy it on the street corner, and on the 
lack of complaints about the VICS clinic on Cormorant Street near the 
provincial ministry of health.

Confirmed witnesses will include Colorado researcher and biology 
professor Bob Melamede, Canadian AIDS Society consultant and former 
Health Canada epidemiologist Lynne Belle-Isle and Conservative 
senator Pierre Claude Nolin. Nolin chaired a 2002 senate committee 
that recommended legalizing marijuana. Several VICS members will talk 
about the stress and other effects of the raid.

The judge could legalize VICS's work, says Lucas, and the case could 
also result in the court legalizing marijuana for all users. If 
cannabis prohibition prevents people who are legally allowed to use 
medical marijuana from getting their medicine, then those laws could 
be found to be unconstitutional. Says Lucas, "Although that's not the 
goal of our case, that's a possible outcome."

Or as Tousaw puts it, "If we didn't have marijuana prohibition, sick 
people wouldn't be in danger of going to jail." Tousaw has also 
worked on high-profile cases representing Marc Emery and Steve Kubby, 
and he advocates reforming Canadian drug laws. "It's clear to me, and 
to anyone who takes a long hard look at this, marijuana prohibition 
is a failed policy."

The constitutional challenge will cost around $100,000, Lucas says. 
The VICS has already raised about half of that through donations and 
continues to fundraise. "The other half is still a struggle for us."

Lucas says there are over a million medical marijuana users in 
Canada. The federal program to provide the medicine has only 
registered 500 users. Compassion societies across the country help 
over 10,000 people. Asked where the rest get their medicine, Lucas 
says, "They're buying it on the street corner and frankly they're 
vulnerable to arrest right now."
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