Pubdate: Sat, 17 Apr 2010
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2010 The Toronto Star
Author: Jennifer Yang
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Canada)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


When Georgia Peschel first heard police had raided CALM, a compassion 
club in Toronto, her initial panicked reaction was this: "Now where 
will my son get his marijuana?"

For the past three years, Peschel and her 17-year-old have made the 
hour-long drive into Toronto every two weeks. They would knock on a 
darkened Queen St. E. storefront, follow a doorman inside, and buy 
$140 worth of marijuana from the people at CALM, or Cannabis As 
Living Medicine.

The Newmarket-area, church-going family hardly seem the type to 
frequent drug dens. But Storm Peschel - named for his tendency to 
"kick up a storm" while in his mother's womb - is no regular kid.

At the age of four, Storm was diagnosed with Multiple Synostosis 
Syndrome, an extremely rare genetic disorder that causes his bones to 
slowly fuse. Eventually, his vertebrae will meld and his cartilage 
will turn hard as bone. Storm doubts he will live past 30.

On a bad night, the pain would cause Storm to scream for hours. When 
he was eight, doctors began prescribing him codeine, but the drug 
made him groggy, nauseated and unable to go to school. It also made 
him depressed.

When Storm was 15, Peschel decided to let her son try marijuana. She 
knew this was a startling proposition for a parent to make, but her 
doubts went up in smoke with Storm's first toke.

"I felt it lift away," Storm says of the pain that creaks in his 
hands and joints. "I (now) live a fairly normal life. I don't 
actually feel my bone disease takes anything away anymore."

Since discovering cannabis, Storm has lost 75 pounds from being able 
to ride his bike and do other activities, and he improved his marks 
to make the honour roll. He says marijuana has given him a life; his 
mother says it's given him hope.

But to date, Storm has found just one source for easily accessible, 
high-quality cannabis: CALM, a compassion club that sells medical 
marijuana to some 3,000 registered members.

But CALM, like the dozens of other compassion clubs across Canada, is 
unlicensed and therefore illegal. And at about 3:40 p.m. on March 31, 
the club was raided by police and shut down for business.

Compassion clubs know perfectly well they are illegal. But they are 
forced to exist, they say, for people like Storm.

"It's a matter of necessity," says lawyer Alan Young, an advocate of 
medical marijuana and defender of compassion clubs. "There's a sense 
of necessity when you need to break the law in order to achieve a 
greater good."

In 2001, in response to a court order, the federal government 
introduced the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR), which 
established guidelines for allowing sick Canadians to possess marijuana.

But for stakeholders of the program, there is still one vital thing 
missing when it comes to medical marijuana: reasonable access.

"I think the Medical Marijuana Access Division of Health Canada is 
the biggest oxymoron we have in federal government," says Philippe 
Lucas, a Victoria city councillor and founder of the Vancouver Island 
Compassion Society. He uses marijuana to treat the symptoms of 
hepatitis C, which he contracted in Ontario from a tainted blood 
transfusion. "It's not about improving access; it's about restricting 
access, to the point where we literally force people to break the law 
in order to treat their symptoms."

There are two ways of getting marijuana legally, both condemned by 
medical cannabis users as grossly flawed. The first is to buy from 
Health Canada, which contracts its supply from Saskatchewan's Prairie 
Plant Systems. The contract expires in the fall of 2011, and Health 
Canada says a "new competitive procurement process" was opened in 
April 2009. It is currently evaluating new bids.

But currently, the government grows only one strain of cannabis, 
despite research and patient feedback that show different strains 
have varying therapeutic effects. Many users also complain the 
marijuana is vastly inferior to black market supplies, describing it 
as weak, irradiated (repugnant to many medical users) and 
inconvenient (orders are currently sent by mail). As of June 2009, 
about 20 per cent of the 4,029 licensed Canadians were buying 
marijuana from the government.

Health Canada declined to provide an interview for this story but 
answered a few questions via email.

The second way to legally obtain marijuana is grow it yourself, or 
designate another person to do it for you. This option Young calls a 
"slap in the face" - what other patients are required to grow their 
own medication, he asks?

"Pretty much the day the MMAR was proclaimed into force was the day I 
knew it was defective," Young says. "The routes for access to 
medicine were so limited that we argued they were constitutionally deficient."

And the courts have largely agreed. According to Young, the 
government has lost as many as six court challenges related to 
medical marijuana, each time a judge deeming the system unconstitutional.

"It's insulting and it's irrational," says Lucas. "If this was any 
other program but medical marijuana, there would be an incredible 
uproar right now. This would be a government scandal of the highest order."

Young criticizes the government for only improving the program 
reflexively when forced by the courts. And even when changes are 
made, they are often minimal; in 2003, Young successfully challenged 
an MMAR restriction that forbade pot growers from supplying to more 
than one user. A federal court deemed this "one-to-one" restriction 
unconstitutional and ordered Health Canada to expand it. Health 
Canada did, just barely, to two-to-one.

"If you don't tell me that's the ultimate disrespect and contempt to 
me, to patients and to the court, I don't know what is," Young says.

Compassion club owners say they're simply doing what Health Canada won't.

"We bridge the gap between regulation and reality," says CALM owner 
Neev Tapiero. "I knew I was helping people and I was quite confidant 
a jury trial would never convict me."

Tapiero started CALM in 1996 and moved it to its current location in 
2004. The club's exterior is unmarked, its windows blackened, but 
inside, CALM has all the trappings of a clinic: waiting room, 
pamphlets, customer kiosks with scales and hand sanitizer. CALM rules 
say all members must be licensed or have doctor's notes confirming 
their condition.

But the shadowy nature of compassion clubs can invite skepticism 
about their true motivations, and certainly some of them are shady. 
Prominent AIDS activist Jim Wakeford, the first Canadian granted 
federal exemption for marijuana possession, has accused compassion 
clubs of profiting off sick people by selling at black market prices 
(most clubs charge between $6 to $12 per gram; Health Canada charges $5).

Tapiero insists CALM steers clear of organized crime and also 
inspects its marijuana with a microscope. As for the prices, Tapiero 
says they're regrettably high, but he has four employees, legal fees, 
rental payments and a two-year-old son to provide for. He declined to 
disclose his earnings but says he pays taxes.

Police contend compassion clubs are definitely making profits and 
that when CALM was raided, cops seized three bags of cash and some 
18,700 grams of marijuana and hashish, with a total estimated street 
value of more than $200,000. (Tapiero says quantities were 
exaggerated by police.) Tapiero was arrested, along with eight CALM 
employees and volunteers, and all are now facing drug trafficking charges.

The raid was captured by CALM's security cameras, however, and the 
club has since posted the video online, prompting outrage from 
members and supporters.

"It's a public relations nightmare," Young says. "The officer who 
decided imprudently to raid the club did not know the bigger picture, 
and I'm assuming he must regret his decision because you can't win."

Detective Jim Brons, who conducted the raid, admits he was unaware of 
the legal context swirling around medical cannabis prior to making 
the arrests. He also recently learned of the club's existence after 
transferring to 51 Division last summer.

Brons sympathizes with patients who rely on CALM, but says that as a 
police officer, he simply couldn't ignore the "numerous" community 
complaints being made about the club.

"Nobody really wants to engage a compassionate centre in an 
investigation," he says. "But they cannot supersede the laws."

The detective does concede the issue is ambiguous, however, and that 
he'd like to see clarification from higher-ups.

"Give us some guidelines because right now, there are no guidelines 
for the Toronto police in relation to compassionate centres," he 
says. "I think that's why they haven't been enforced."

If history is any indication, the CALM arrests are unlikely to result 
in convictions. In 2002, the Toronto Compassion Centre was raided but 
all the drug-related charges were dropped 17 months later. The 
federal justice department said proceeding with a prosecution would 
be against the public interest.

Tapiero's lawyer, Ron Marzel, is confident CALM's charges will 
similarly disappear.

Tapiero has no doubt compassion clubs are here to stay, though he has 
little faith the government will change the system anytime soon.

But changes are afoot, according to Health Canada. In an email to the 
Star, a spokesperson said the government is considering "longer-term 
measures" to revise the medical marijuana program, focusing on "key 
areas" such as reasonable access. Public safety and security and 
overall costs to the government are also being evaluated.

Alan Young has a tiny spark of hope. In December, for the first time 
ever, he secured a meeting with Health Canada officials to discuss 
improving the program. He will meet with them again on Monday.

"It may be that the tide is turning and Health Canada will try to fix 
the problem," he says, cautiously optimistic. "I think they know 
they're vulnerable. They've played their hand too far now."

Young is proposing that Health Canada end its monopoly on marijuana 
production and start regulating the private sector. He already has a 
person in mind for Canada's first supplier of medical marijuana: Sam 
Mellace, a former Torontonian now living near Vancouver.

Mellace was once connected with CALM but the relationship dissolved 
over personal differences with Tapiero. He is now critical of 
compassion clubs but says he shares the same goal: to bring 
accessible and affordable marijuana to sick Canadians.

He suffers from chronic pain himself and has one of the biggest 
licences in Canada, permitting him to grow nearly 300 plants. Because 
of the scale of his grow-op, Mellace thinks his company, New Age 
Medical Solutions, is ready to start legally producing on an 
industrial scale for no more than $5 a gram. He is also developing 
alternatives to smoking cannabis, such as creams and butters.

Health Canada killed a 2006 pilot project to examine marijuana 
distribution through pharmacies, citing provincial and territorial 
barriers, but Mellace envisions a future where clinics can prescribe 
medical marijuana and patients can buy their dosages at Shoppers Drug Mart.

Such a future would certainly the Peschels' lives easier. But for 
now, the reality is that Georgia will continue buying marijuana for 
Storm any way she can.

"I will do whatever it takes to take away my son's pain," she says 
fiercely. "If it means I have to go downtown and try and find someone 
to buy drugs off of, I would do it.

"Tell me any mother who wouldn't."
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