Pubdate: Thu, 01 Mar 2012
Source: Coast, The (CN NS)
Copyright: 2012 Coast Publishing


With Health Canada rolling out more restrictive rules and Stephen
Harper fighting pro-weed legal judgements, local MMJ users fear the
system is going up in smoke.

In an early-'90s Civic we drive eastward, away from the
Halifax-Dartmouth sprawl, toward the tiny hamlets and villages that
tuck themselves into the myriad bays and coves of the eastern shore.
In the car the conversation flits quickly from topic to topic, like
some conspiratorially minded hummingbird, and runs the gamut of
water-cooler fringe-news talk. A speech on the dangers of fluoride in
the water leads to a dissertation on chem trails, which effortlessly
flows into an account of the real story behind 9/11. The only way
through it is to allow each topic to run its course, and then gently,
calmly, try to ease the derailed interview back onto track. I want to
know about cannabis: medical-grade, Health Canada-approved marijuana,
to be precise. Jes James, co-founder of The Halifax Compassionate
Club, with whom I am now delivering an indeterminate quantity of
medical marijuana to as many patients as we can schedule in the day,
is my tour guide.

The 50-something James has rheumatoid arthritis. Like many auto-immune
diseases, in which the body attacks its own cells, rheumatoid
arthritis presents itself under a spectrum of symptoms. To James, who
was diagnosed at age 13, rheumatoid arthritis meant a lifetime of
inflammation-based pain.

Western medicine tends to treat rheumatoid arthritis with doses of
cortisone, or other anti-inflammatory steroids. James, allergic to
anti-inflammatory steroids and worried about the side effects of
long-term use, began to research alternative medicines. That's when
she took on the alias of the famous train robber, and started using
cannabis to treat her ailments.

"Twelve years ago, I was bedridden for six months," says James. "I had
used cannabis, but this was before I started using it medicinally.
Without it, by now I'd be in a wheelchair."

The effects were so beneficial that James became one of the Maritimes'
most avid cannabis crusaders. Most days James plays "catch me if you
can," skirting the grey areas of legality, delivering bags of
marijuana to Nova Scotia's sick and needy and solidifying
relationships between prospective clients and ever-needed growers.

"We have about 100 clients in active files," says James, as we turn
lightly onto a gravel road. "We're always looking for growers for
patients. We always have more patients than growers...Part of the
process of finding growers and weeding through them is trying to get
into a dialogue, and get their trust, to the point where we can start
talking about the actual nutrients, and pesticides and cultivation
techniques they're using."

Our first visit is to Tim, from Pugwash. Tim lives in a detached home,
set well back from the main road, which by now is just a gravel cut
running through the Acadian forest. There is a calm in the breeze, and
James' staccato, train-of-thought delivery has a flowing quality to it
that lets the mind breathe.

"What's happening is that patients are hitting a wall right away,"
says James, ringing the doorbell. "In small towns, this is really
common. They do not want their doctor to know that they use cannabis.
The doctor is often a family friend. Or you come across medical
clinics with a No Cannabis policy, so the doctor can't talk to you
about cannabis even if he wanted to. If patients have a doctor who
won't speak to them, we help them find a doctor who will."

Tim, using a walker, a fat black retriever with a wagging tail in tow,
answers the door. We sit on overstuffed couches, and James proffers
Tim a bulging sack of pungent buds. Tim's story, of course, is unique
to Tim. But within it runs the standard thread of the self-medicating,
rural Nova Scotian.

Tim has hereditary spastic paraplegia. It is a crippling ailment which
starts in the legs and works its way up. The sufferer carries the
disease for years, unencumbered. And then, very rapidly, usually
around middle age, the afflicted watches the body simply collapse. It
is genetic, often effects a complete generation of siblings and
largely considered to be irreversible. Tim, increasingly couch-bound,
understandably depressed, had never tried marijuana. There isn't a
strong cannabis culture in Nova Scotia among the older generations.
But, having recently lost control of his sphincter, and quickly losing
control of hope, Tim took a puff of an offered joint. And then
another. And another. And then Tim got off the couch.

"I don't shit in a bag anymore," says Tim, opening the back patio
door. His deck is fringed with fat, bushy, marijuana plants. Gorgeous,
red-haired buds, caked in crystals, shimmer in the mid-day sun. James
is giddy as she examines Tim's crop. The red-haired buds are a rare
find, and she carefully snips several grafts for cloning. It looks to
James like a Red Cross, a high-quality strain with a medicinal
history, more commonly found in California. And apparently, it has
found its way to Pugwash.

"It's a completely different dynamic if you live in a city like
Toronto or Vancouver," says James, holding the bud to her nose,
breathing deep. "If you have a legitimate medical condition you can go
to one of these clubs and immediately access the highest quality
cannabis on the market."

In Nova Scotia, however, James is currently it. The Halifax
Compassionate Club is the only dispensary east of Montreal. What that
means, in the province with the highest cancer rates in the country,
where almost half the population still lives rurally, is that James is
constantly moving. She's delivering, growing, informing and
connecting. If you keep your ears open to the hum, Nova Scotia is a
constant flood of stories of suffering. People don't know how to get
legal---or even good---marijuana, or they don't even know that
cannabis might be a treatment option. Navigating the Marihuana Medical
Access Program, Health Canada's document-laden licencing program, can
leave sufferers in a bureaucratic funk. Meeting with James is often
the first step toward relief.

"I had a prof whose wife had MS," says James, as we leave Tim waving
on the porch steps. "He would have to go to the street to find
cannabis for his wife. She had a licence, but she had no source. And
this is what people want to avoid. Nobody should have to go to street
level drug dealers to buy their cannabis from unknown sources. I'm not
saying those are bad sources, but if you don't know that person, it
could be anything."

"How do you get a licence?" I ask.

"Right now the entire medical marijuana regulations have been struck
down. There is no medical marijuana regulation in Canada whatsoever,"
says James. "The Matt Mernagh case in Ontario has changed

Wait. What? No regulations? But what about all the Health Canada forms
to be filled out in triplicate, and doctors' notes, and passport-sized
photos? And registering your name and address with the RCMP?

Matt Mernagh is not hard to find. The man wears his marijuana use on
his sleeve, and has literally dared the current Harper government to
stop him. If Mark Emery, sitting behind bars in a federal prison in
Seattle, Washington, is Canada's prince of pot, Mernagh is most
certainly among Canada's royal family of cannabis.

"I'd been growing myself for about 15 years, and I was doing it
'illegally,' I guess you could say," says Mernagh, excusing himself
momentarily from a wake and bake session in Vancouver as we chat on
the phone. "I got caught about four years ago. I hired a lawyer named
Paul Lewin while I was in prison, and the first thing that Mr. Lewin
said to me was that he'd like to do a constitutional challenge on my
behalf because he knew my situation."

Mernagh suffers from fibromialgia, scoliosis, depression and seizures.
He also writes some of the best pot reviews on the internet. He took
the federal regulations on marijuana to court, had them overturned,
and has become a marijuana hero in Canada in the process.

"We went to court and we proved last year that there was no way to get
into the medical marijuana program, by my own testimony," continues
Mernagh. "We also had 22 witnesses in total, that said 'Hey, I'm like
Matt Mernagh. I can't get into this program either.' And we used
people from across Canada. And that's important because we found that
some provinces, and even some cities are quite dramatically more
well-off than other places, and Health Canada uses that to spike their

"Some people have access to medical marijuana, and some people have no
access to medical marijuana. Everybody has different types of
opportunities. It depends on where you live. It depends on who you
know," says Mernagh. "There were all these flaws with the medical
marijuana plan that we brought to court. And the judge agreed with us,
so he gutted it. And by gutting it I mean he absolutely destroyed the
medical marijuana program. He said 'This program is not needed,' and
that the government has 90 days to make efforts to make a new medical
marijuana program. But this medical marijuana program has to take into
account that the patient comes first. My choice to use cannabis is my
choice. It's not my doctor's choice. It's not the government's choice.
This is my choice."

These were the heady days of April 2011. And for a moment in time, it
appeared as though marijuana prohibition in Canada might just come
crumbling down.

But the empire struck back.

Almost immediately after Ontario superior court justice Donald Taliano
struck down the marijuana laws, the Harper government appealed the
decision. Then, on June 17 of 2011, Health Canada issued a cryptic
press release stating that Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq
would be looking to improve the Marihuana Medical Access Program. The
program, as it stands, is the de facto set of rules that governs who
can consume cannabis on medical grounds. And while there are those
like Mernagh who are spearheading the legal battle to set the entire
program on its head, thousands of others across the country have
applied to, and have been granted, the legal right to self-medicate
their respective conditions through cannabis consumption. Nova Scotia,
per capita, has the most licenced medical cannabis users in the
country (see sidebar).

Jes James and Tim from Pugwash are among those who have been granted
"grow licences" by Health Canada. They are legally allowed to grow
their own medicine. Aglukkaq's press release suggests that grow
licences will be eliminated. Aglukkaq bases this strategy on the
suggestion that the Access Program is ripe for infiltration from the
criminal element, and that needed improvements will make safer our
nation's "children and communities." Tellingly, the press release
notes in no uncertain terms that legalization or decriminalization of
cannabis is not an option on the table. The impending Mernagh appeal
is not even alluded to.

When I contacted Health Canada on the matter, and asked for proof
about increased criminal incursions into the field of medical
marijuana, media relations officer Gary Scott-Holub withdrew behind
claims related to the health and safety of the program, and the
perceived "risk of home invasion." There are no statistics to back the
federal government's suggestion of increased criminality in the Access
Program, only broad-based fears and suggestions of a greater good for
the so-called greater community.

After Aglukkaq's press release, Health Canada then held a series of
stakeholders' meetings in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. These
meetings, the last of which wound up on September 15, 2011 in Toronto,
were ostensibly meant to gather feedback on the proposed scrapping of
grow licences.

Ted Smith, founder of Cannabis Buyers Clubs of Canada, a compassion
club that operates out of Victoria, was invited to participate in the
stakeholder meeting in Vancouver. His feedback, he was told, would be
taken into consideration. Not so, says Smith. He thinks that the
stakeholders' meetings were nothing more than a dog and pony show in
which Health Canada's mind was already made up, and those concerned
with keeping patient access to medical marijuana at the forefront of
the agenda were shuffled to the sidelines of the conversation. All
signs point to grow licences being scrapped by 2013, regardless of the
evidence that suggested that they are facilitating access for those
who depend on cannabis for their health.

"It's obvious that Health Canada doesn't really consider the patients
to be important stakeholders in this process, and they seem intent
upon taking patients' rights to grow their own medicine away," says
Smith from his home in Victoria. "I doubt if anything that we said
would have been able to stop them. They have political bosses to
answer to, and the bureaucrats at these meetings might be really nice,
but the people above them, [not so much]. In essence they were asking
for help in putting us out of business or sending us to jail, for a
program that it appears would give a small number of large companies
control over the marketplace. So it really appears to be playing into
the hands of large drug companies, at the expense of patients and
their caregivers."

Health Canada's findings and recommendations in this matter are slated
to appear in an upcoming issue of the Canadian Gazette, Parliament's
public record of its goings-on. All signs point to individual grow
licences being slated for the chopping block, to be replaced by a
large-scale, commercial system of contract growers.

"Health Canada is proposing to put a new supply and distribution
system in place that uses only fully regulated, inspected and audited
licensed commercial producers," says Gary Scott Holub, Health Canada's
media rep. "These licensed commercial producers would be regularly
inspected and audited by Health Canada to ensure that they are
compliant with all applicable regulations."

Removing individual grow licences stands to severely complicate
patient access to their medicine. And this is compounded by the fact
that Health Canada's attempts to grow its own marijuana have,
according to licenced users, failed drastically in the past. The one
grower currently under contract to Health Canada, Prairie Plant
Systems, grows notoriously ineffective marijuana 1,000 metres
underground in an abandoned mine shaft in Saskatchewan. The Health
Canada shwag is then Gamma-radiated in Quebec (ostensibly to remove
mould), a process that many worry might destroy the medicinal
properties of the cannabinoids in the weed.

"They dilute their weed with leaf and stalk," says Jes James, now back
home, seated at the kitchen table. The mood has become decidedly
serious. "It is nothing anybody wants to smoke. Do you know how many
patients have written letters and said 'I will come and work for you
for free. Let me help you. You are obviously unable to do this job.'
Many people have sent that letter."

Of course, there is also the not-insignificant spectre of a third
piece of legislation. Bill C-10, affectionately referred to as the
Omnibus Crime Bill, looms in the near future. Attached to Bill C-10,
passed through Parliament and now before the Senate, are mandatory
minimum penalties for growing marijuana. The minimum penalty for
growing between six and 200 cannabis plants is six months
imprisonment. The minimum penalty for growing between 201 and 500
plants is one year's imprisonment. And the minimum term of
imprisonment is two years if the number of plants produced is more
than 500. There will be no judicial discretion, no extenuating
circumstances, no choice in the matter.

"The timing of mandatory minimums and the closing down of personal
grows is not coincidence," says Chris Enns, seated across from James
at their shared kitchen table. Enns, co-founder of The Halifax
Compassionate Club, is also the owner of an online head shop. "There
are patients that are going to continue to grow for themselves
regardless of what the government says. There will be people in
wheelchairs and walkers in their court systems, clogging up their
court systems. That's what's going to happen. What we're going to do,
is we're going to end up in court within a week of them implementing
these new regulations."

"We're going to fight them in court," agrees Ted Smith from Victoria.
"It seems to be the only way our government will listen on this issue,
or any progressive drug policy issue. The Conservatives are bent upon
putting in crime bills and throwing people in jail that engage in
illicit drug use. The courts appear to be our only refuge from our
government at this point. Clogging the's an expensive and
time-consuming process. And a lot of people are going to suffer and
die prematurely from a lack of cannabis care."

Back at the wheel of her makeshift ambulance, driving down another
gravel road to meet a grandmother in Preston with a cancerous brain
tumour who's in need of some weed, James looks pensive. It strikes me
that regulations or no, James will strive on. This is Nova Scotia,
after all, home of North America's first documented hemp fields.

"We're prepared to fight," says James, gazing off into middle
distance. "But we're also prepared for the outcome."

- - Miles Howe is a freelance journalist and the Halifax-based editor of
the The Dominion.

- --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Rick Simpson, hemp crusader

Front-line cannabis crusader Rick Simpson, hailing from Maccan, Nova
Scotia, might be one of the main reasons that Nova Scotians are the
most licenced, per capita, medical marijuana users in Canada.

For years, Simpson grew mass quantities of marijuana in the rural Nova
Scotia town. He turned pound upon pound of bud into essential oil, a
product that he called hemp oil, and distributed it---free of
charge---to the ailing masses. Soon enough, first-hand testimonials of
miracle healings began to surface out of the Maccan area. From chronic
pain to glaucoma to cancers of all types---a medical revolution
appeared to be underway.

Meetings of hemp oil converts began being held at the Maccan Royal
Legion, that is, until the Legion stepped in, fired the president and
locked the doors. In 2005, the RCMP began a series of raids upon the
Simpson estate. They seized 1,600 plants, and sparked a legal battle
that lasted for the next two years. In 2007 Simpson was found guilty
of possession for the purpose of trafficking and growing marijuana. He
classically noted to the judge, when discussing his sentencing, "It
may be better to lock me up right now. As soon as I get home I'm going
to treat my patients. I'm going to grow that plant until the day I
die, so I might as well be put in jail today. I can't stop in the
middle of [treatment]. People's lives are at stake here."

The chronic persecution of Simpson had begun, however, and resulted in
further raids upon his house. Things culminated in 2009, while Simpson
was in Amsterdam receiving the heralded High Times Freedom Fighter of
the Year award at the Cannabis Cup. The RCMP had raided his house the
day before, and he would be immediately arrested on charges if he were
to return to Canada. He announced to the cheering crowd at the Cup
that he would be seeking marijuana asylum in Europe, where he might
more easily grow pot, and make his hemp oil.

Simpson is currently in Croatia, where he continues to tout the
amazing medical properties of cannabis.

To learn more about Rick Simpson story, see "Run From the Cure" on
YouTube. --MH
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MAP posted-by: Matt