Pubdate: Sat, 27 Sep 1997 Source: Toronto Sun Contact: Time to legalize medical grass By MICHELE MANDEL, Toronto Sun He should not be a criminal, not when he has devoted much of his life to public service, not when he is now waging a tough battle against AIDS. But a criminal he is, in the eyes of the law. And any moment, Jim Wakeford believes, Metro Police could be at his apartment door. It is a constant fear, an added stress he shouldn't have to bear with everything else he endures. His crime? He smokes marijuana because it is the only drug, natural or synthetic, that offers him some relief. Almost two years ago, he began exhibiting the AIDS symptoms of wasting, the dramatic weight loss that can be a slow death by emaciation. He was on the socalled miracle cocktail of drugs, the endless, brutal regimen of pills credited with prolonging his life. The price, though, was nausea and a loss of appetite so lethal he'd dropped 20 pounds from his 150pound frame. Wakeford had tried every treatment prescribed, including the synthetic version of marijuana, Marinol, which only made him feel stoned. And then someone suggested smoking marijuana, for the reputed "munchies" people get. "Of course, I smoked when I was younger, 30 years ago. I was a hippie, for God's sake," says Wakeford, 52, a founder of the Casey House foundation. "I started smoking a joint before dinner about a year ago and the effect was amazing." His weight went from 130 pounds to 144 pounds. For the first time in a year, he could keep his food down. Until recently, he didn't have to hunt around like some criminal. Inspired by California lawmakers, which last year passed the first Compassionate Use Act giving residents the right to possess marijuana for medical purposes, he helped found a covert club here that dispensed marijuana at low cost to those with a doctor's note verifying a serious medical condition. For several months, Cannabis as Legitimate Medicine (CALM), operated out of an Annex office, but their illegal status made it impossible to attract enough patients to survive. Late in July, they were forced to close their doors. "I was so disenchanted at the lack of support from people who use medical marijuana but wouldn't use the club. They thought it was a cop setup." Wakeford turned his hopes to the London, Ont. case of Chris Clay, who was fighting his marijuana possession and trafficking charges under the Charter of Rights. A key part of Clay's case was the therapeutic benefits of marijuana. But while Judge John McCart was especially sympathetic to the medical argument, he ruled that it was up to Parliament and not the courts to change the drug laws. His decision was an enormous blow. "I'm kind of angry about the whole thing and feeling quite vulnerable," Wakeford says. "I'm terrified of being hunted out by the police. I couldn't cope with that." He has written to the prime minister and the ministers of health and justice, urging them to grant him compassionate access to marijuana for himself and the thousands like him. A clerk responded in a form letter, thanking him for his correspondence. So he is forced into being a criminal. Yet the arguments against medical marijuana are quite thin. What kind of message will it send to kids, its detractors warn. Boston Globe columnist, Ellen Goodman, countered that best: "What is the infamous signal being sent to (children)?" she asks. "If you hurry up and get cancer, you, too, can get high?" The other argument revolves around the controversial belief that marijuana is a "gateway drug" which leads to harder drug use. And yet physicians are legally allowed to prescribe far more addictive narcotics such as Percodan and morphine. It makes no sense. "I see the benefits," says a physician who estimates a third of his AIDS patients report good results from marijuana. "Those idiots at Health and Welfare keep saying it hasn't been proven," Wakeford charges. So what's the problem? With all our research abilities, why has the efficacy of medical marijuana gone unstudied? At stake, it seems, is the slippery slope. If we open the door a crack to medical users, goes the argument, the broader legalization of marijuana will ultimately follow. Those concerns hardly justify the continued discomfort of thousands who could benefit from the drug carefully prescribed. If marijuana eases the suffering of patients like Jim Wakeford and others who endure the pain of cancer or multiple sclerosis, how, in good conscience, can we deny them?