Source: Toronto Sun Pubdate: Sunday, September 28, 1997 CONTACT: GOING TO POT Marijuana advocates fight to get the weed decriminalized. Is it just a pipe dream? By Michele Mandel We slog through the thick forest, Pete leading with the long branch he wields like a machete, clearing the narrow trail that is supposed to lead to a garden of pot. A pot of gold. His secret garden consists of about 30 marijuana plants he has planted in the midst of this bush on the outskirts of London, about $15,000 worth of drug he has lovingly nurtured and tended throughout the summer. And now for him and hundreds like him, it’s harvest time for what is believed to be Ontario’s No. 1 cash crop. All across the province, hidden along hydro tower rightofways and cornfields and unsuspecting Crown lands, clandestine fields of pot flowers are ripe for the picking. "It’s an herb, put here by God," Pete is explaining, the ponytailed former New Yorker speaking with missionary zeal. It may be an innocuouslooking herb, but an estimated three million Canadians are getting high on it. More potent than anything smoked back in the 1960s or 70s, the new pot is currently enjoying a resurgence of popularity that coincides with the strongest push in years to decriminalize the weed so that casual and medical users can use the drug without legal penalty. Their greatest boost came last month from the unlikely source of an Ontario Court judge in London, Ont. While Justice John McCart found hempcrusader Chris Clay guilty of possessing and selling marijuana seedlings from his head shop, his ruling went a long way in urging Parliament to reconsider its marijuana laws, especially as they relate to medicinal users. Ever since it was first criminalized in 1923, marijuana has been blamed for everything from reefer madness to being a "gateway drug" that inevitably leads to addiction to the harder drugs of heroin or cocaine. The myths and the controversy have raged or years. Each time the drug is studied, recommendations call for its decriminalization. And each time, the lawmakers refuse. In 1972, the LeDain Commission concluded that simple possession of marijuana should not be a criminal offence. But their recommendation was ignored by Parliament. Earlier this year, a majority of senators proposed that possession of small amounts of marijuana and hashish no longer be illegal, but members of the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee stopped short of endorsing the move, knowing the House of Commons wouldn't pass it. The Canadian Bar Association wrote the Senate committee in March calling for the decriminalization of marijuana possession or cultivation for personal use. Even the Canadian Police Association recommended the penalty for small possession should be a $100 ticket. Prime Minister Jean Chretien, however, made it clear his government is not about to step out on a political limb and decriminalize marijuana. "It’s a question of values in society," he has said. Judge McCart, however, ruled that a "most impressive number of experts" had convinced him that marijuana is "relatively harmless compared to tobacco and alcohol" and that it "does not lead to ‘hard drug use." He reviewed the practices in numerous other countries, noting that the Netherlandss’ nonenforcement of its marijuana laws has not led to reefer madness. Instead, they actually have onfifth of the American rate of teenage marijuana use. Most European countries have either dropped mere possession from their criminal law or minimized fines to the equivalent of a parking ticket. "The national governments of Canada and the United States appear to be somewhat out of step with most of the Western world," he noted in his 27page decision last month. "Parliament may wish to take a serious look at easing the restrictions that apply to the use of marijuana … for medical uses," he added. "Two things happened," says Alan Young, the Osgoode Hall law professor who fought Clay’s case in order to constitutionally challenge Canada’s drug laws. "A member of the establishment, a conservative, elderly man, has agreed that marijuana is harmless. The second, is we convinced the judge that it is manifestly unjust to deprive dying people of the drug of their choice." But that is as far as the judge went. It is up to Parliament, not the courts, to change Canada’s drug laws, he concluded. "I will be going at them quite aggressively," vows Young, who has launched an appeal and has targeted Parliament to push their case. "Why are we doing this, why are we spending $1 billion to manufacture criminals out of people who just use a different method of intoxicant?" *** He certainly comes across more as a hippie zealot than a criminal. When we first asked for a tour of a marijuana garden, Pete had this rather sticky stipulation. "Just to make sure we’re all on the same wavelength, we usually ask people to smoke with us first," he said over the phone. After we explained some of the legal difficulties that would involve, our ponytailed friend acquiesced to taking us even if we weren't stoned. "Growing outdoors is a big game," he’s explaining as we alight from the car on a quiet country road and hurry after him into the bush. "You can lose your entire crop to rodents, to deer, to cops, to established thieves who spend thousands of dollars to rent helicopters or planes." Pete keeps glancing behind, making sure no one’s following us, which all seems a little cloak and dagger for a sunny Thursday afternoon. Just a few minutes more, he promises, as he launches into his lecture on the health benefits of marijuana. For its believers and indeed many medical experts who testified at Chris Clay’s trial, the recreational use of pot is more benign than alcohol and tobacco. Smoked through a water bong, Pete says, much of the carcinogens are removed. He does acknowledge at least one ill effect. He urged us to call and remind him about this rendezvous. "One thing about smoking weed," he laughed, "it screws up your shortterm memory." To the local pot community, Pete is known as the minister of agriculture, a marijuana horticulturist whose expert technical knowledge is available to gardeners growing outdoors, and to the growing number who are turning their homes into indoor greenhouses. "I deal with everybody, from 18yearold kids with a couple of seeds in a bag to people with warehouse size operations to the mother of two and member of the PTA who grows for personal use." He’s currently encouraging college students to grow pot. "With government cutbacks and the high tuition costs, why not grow some in your dorm closet and be able to pay for your tuition?" He dispenses his advice for free; growers pay his travel expenses and remember him when they harvest. He calls it green money: He’s smoked every day for seven years and has yet to pay for his marijuana. This field we’re heading for was planted in May for a man in his 20s. Along the way, we learn that it’s the female plants that produce the allimportant buds and there are as many strains of marijuana as there are varieties of wine, though with the much hipper names of Bubble Gum, Big Bud and Russian Swan. Every year during the American Thanksgiving weekend, gardeners gather in Amsterdam to choose the best for the Cannabis Cup, the annual smokefest, seed swap and judging competition sponsored by High Times magazine. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, sophisticated indoor home growers have spent a decade cloning and experimenting to the point that the THC – the principal psychoactive compound in marijuana – is between 8 and 9% in pot today, compared to the marijuana of the ‘70s which averaged between 0.5 and 2% THC. So today, two or three puffs of pot are equivalent to two or three joints of yesterday, another health benefit, Pete says. Less than 1% of users smoke daily and the majority using pot recreationally smoke about three times a month. Hardly an epidemic of the drug that a 1930s poster warned is linked to "Murder! Insanity! Death!" British Columbia has long been considered the leader in homegrown production, with estimates of 50,000 growers across the province and as many as 3,000 hydroponic growers in Vancouver alone. Ontario lags somewhat behind. We hike further into the forest, up and down steep banks of trees, the sound of cars on the country road now a very distant hum. Pete doesn't know and doesn't care whose land this is. "It’s not wise to grow on your own land. Under the drug laws, the government can seize everything you own, they can take your car, your house. The best place to grow is on Crown land. You want to get to someplace a mile further than anybody would want to go. "It’s a fun game," he says of the millions spent on police efforts to catch them. "You’re sneaking around and they’re sneaking around. It’s fun. If the heat’s on, you just make sure you’re 100 feet from the crop and you carry a birdwatcher guide with you. They can’t bust you." Interspersed among corn fields is a favorite location for many, but they are an easy target for the joint RCMPOPP drug eradication project. Overflying helicopters can spot the darker green of the marijuana against the corn stalks, says OPP Const. Dennis Harwood. There have been several highprofile busts in cornfields near Guelph, Maple and Trenton this summer and their efforts have uprooted pot with a street value of $8 million and led to charges pending against 14 growers. Pete favors the woods, preferably near wild raspberry bushes, in a clearing that will offer the plants at least four to six hours of direct sunlight. South facing hills and a nearby water source are ideal. A little wolf urine to keep the deer away and the plants need little nurturing. "Marijuana is called weed for a reason. You can do anything to it, even step on it, and it will still grow." The fastest growing segment of the homegrown field, though, is indoor gardening. The risks include abnormally high hydro bills, poorly ventilated gardens that can erupt in flames or an informant – any of which tips off police. It was the latter which likely led to a massive marijuana growing bunker near Hamilton that had 5,000 plants worth $5 million on the street. The ease and profitability of indoor growing makes many willing to take the risk. "All you need are fluorescent lights and soil and a $1,000 investment can grow incredible amounts," says Chris Clay, who sold seedlings until he was arrested last year. "It only costs $2 to $3 a pound to grow, but on the black market it sells for $3,000." Which Clay finds a ludicrous magnet for criminal traffickers. "I hate the black market. Have it legalized, with quality control." Where Pete looks the part of a pot zealot, Clay looks nothing like a crusader out to overturn Canada’s punitive marijuana laws. Softspoken and short with large glasses, the 26yearold who faced two life sentences just for selling marijuana seedlings looks more like a preppy computer expert. Which isn't too far from the truth: His awardwinning website, Hemp Nation, raised $30,000 to fund his constitutional challenge which he now hopes to take to the Supreme Court. Just a week away from moving out to Vancouver where he will serve out his threeyear probation and help a medical marijuana club, Clay sits in the London hemp store that used to be his, and tries not to be discouraged at losing round one. Canadians are on his side, Clay says. He points to a 1994 survey which found 69% of Canadians wanted to see full legalization of marijuana or at least it’s decriminalization. Only 16.8% felt it should be illegal. So why doesn't Parliament act? "It seems to be a political hot potato like abortion," Clay says. "Politicians don’t see any benefit (politically) to changing it." *** We have finally arrived at a clearing carved into the wild raspberry bushes and golden rod. But the beautifully fat purple buds of his marijuana plants are nowhere to be seen. Pete looks around in disbelief. The 30 stalks he had planted and nurtured have been beheaded, each and every one. "This is thieves," Pete says. Cops would have uprooted the entire plant. "Government prohibition has made it such a big money cash crop that people are stealing it," he says, fingering the useless, spiky leaves left behind. "Some of this was going to be for medical users." He takes one last, lingering look before turning away. "Bummer."