Pubdate: Wed, 30 Apr 2008
Source: Eye Weekly (CN ON)
Copyright: 2008 Eye Communications Ltd.
Author: Sivan Keren


Even if you've never heard of the Global Marijuana March (GMM), the
title itself probably conjures up a few images. And if those images
include teenage boys hitting fluorescent bubbling bongs and hippie
girls in cotton dresses moving oddly about to "Uncle John's Band,"
then you're not far off. But it's also likely that this image is
missing a few details - like cops watching on with implicit approval,
rousing speeches about decriminalization and a 20,000-person crowd
spread across our provincial parliament's backyard. And these are
precisely the details that the Toronto Freedom Festival (TFF), in
conjunction with the GMM, will attempt to highlight.

So on May 3, while tokers from Osaka to Thunder Bay to Amsterdam puff,
puff and pass in celebration of cannabis across 235 cities worldwide,
the organizers of the TFF are hoping to keep the fun, but step up the

To do so, the festival will call on a host of speakers, many of whom
will use the "speak free" stage to discuss the politics of cannabis.
Headlining the event is Marc Emery, a.k.a. "The Prince of Pot,"
Canada's high-profile cannabis activist and the US Drug Enforcement
Agency's "most wanted." Emery will address his impending five-year
sentence in an American jail - time he'll be serving for countless
cannabis-related transgressions such as selling marijuana seeds over
the internet. Emery, among eight other speakers, will give
participants and cynics alike good reason to take the Freedom Festival
a little more seriously.

One of the most compelling of these speakers, Alison Myrden ("Freedom
 From Bad Prohibition"), is the "leading female spokeswoman" for Law
Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). The organization, composed of
current and former law enforcement officials, seeks to educate the
public about drug-policy failures while restoring faith and respect
for officers. Myrden, who says that as a cop she "felt like quite the
hypocrite," plans to speak about legalization. And, as she puts it,
bringing an immediate end to "the war on drugs."

When we speak on the phone, Myrden describes the constant and
unbearable symptoms she experiences from a disease called tic
douloureux. Physicians, I later find out, refer to the neuropathic
disorder, as "the most painful condition known to man." But Myrden,
who also suffers from multiple sclerosis, says that most medications
she's tried either don't help at all, or have unsustainable side effects.

"I have a really excruciating pain in my face but I had to jump
through hoops to get the only thing I could find to help," she says,
inhaling deeply. That thing? Cannabis. "As soon as I smoked a
marijuana cigarette, the pain went away," she says.

Since obtaining the prescription 13 years ago, Myrden says that her
allotment (the largest in Canada) of one ounce a day has replaced over
60 per cent of her pills and thousands of milligrams of morphine. But
she hasn't forgotten how it used to be. Her struggles in attaining
cannabis, the side effects of which she likens to those of coffee, are
precisely what led Myrden to campaign for its legalization. Since
joining LEAP, she's written countless letters and conducted thousands
of interviews advocating "to get all drugs regulated and off the street."

And with the recent momentum of Bill C-26, there's been plenty to
write about. The bill, which would impose mandatory minimums and more
severe penalties relating to drug crimes, was passed by the House of
Commons on April 16 and currently awaits debate by the Justice and
Human Rights Committee. And Myrden, among others, says enough is
enough. She believes we need to stop getting caught up in arresting
people for drugs, when drugs should be viewed as a health issue. And
she's certainly not the only one who thinks so.

Ron Marzel, the lawyer who's been on call at the Global Marijuana
March for the past four years, agrees that incarcerating marijuana
users doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Marzel is a defending lawyer
in the recently appealed high-profile Carasel suit. The case, which he
defended before the federal courts, loosened laws surrounding the
production of medical marijuana. Marzel, who'll attend the hearing for
Carasel in early September, says he's optimistic that the federal
court of appeal will uphold the original ruling.

"People should not be going to jail for possession of cannabis. It's
that simple," Marzel says. "There are so many people engaged in
smoking cannabis recreationally ... and [there are] people who are
really, really sick and can't survive without the therapeutic effects
that marijuana provides," he says.

"We need to really ask ourselves: what should we be keeping criminal
and what shouldn't we be keeping criminal?" he continues.

On the speaker's stage, Marzel will address the implications of
Carasel, and other legal issues around decriminalization.  The former,
he says, is "heart-wrenching and dramatic in itself," and the latter
"philosophically important."

Like Marzel, Myrden is concerned that the drug debates are taking
place in the wrong part of the public sphere. "Drugs don't belong in
the legal realm," she asserts with a natural tone of authority. But
with legislation constantly changing, it's impossible to ignore the
highly political component to this weedy back and forthing. And Marzel
isn't the first to point to cross-border politics. "Our neighbour to
the south of us has a lot of input and persuasiveness on the issue,"
he says.

If you ask Marc Emery, he'll say that's a watered-down version of the
story. "The US plays a dominating role in Canadian drug policy," says
the Prince of Pot from his office at Cannabis Culture in Vancouver.
Emery, whose royal nickname reflects years of cannabis-related
activism, is fighting extradition to the US for drug charges of
selling pot seeds by mail order, a process that could see him serve
time in the country he calls "Canada's retarded younger brother."
We'll assume that Emery means that though the US is 91 years older
than Canada, it acts younger by dragging its feet on progressive drug
policy. Still, Emery goes on to say he believes the US feels inferior
to Canada, and is jealous and resentful that it is being forced to
catch up to the modern world. And there's plenty more where that came
from. The Prince of Pot will kick off the "speak free" festivities
("Freedom to Not be Extradited"), and says he'll encourage the tokers
below the stage to continue to come out in huge numbers.

Emery, who's been known to blow smoke in cops' faces at similar
events, says he'll also attempt to bring more seriousness to the
party. He plans to remind the crowd that, "while we're all smoking and
having fun, there are people in jail within blocks of Queen's Park."
(It's a whole lot of blocks to the Don Jail, but his point is taken.)
These are the people, he says, who "have made it possible for us all
to break the law simultaneously."

Although the theme of TFF may seem a bit contrived, especially in the
titles of some of the speaking events (e.g. "The Freedom to Know Who
You Are," "The Freedom to Party Responsibly," etc.), there's a
definite sense of political urgency to the content, even if it's
sometimes lost in the public perception of the event. Not that it
isn't also a celebration. "To a certain extent, it is a party," says
Marzel. "I don't think there's anything wrong with that. And I hope
the party grows and grows so that the political message gets bigger
and bigger." 
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