Is Medical Marijuana Going To Pot?

Mar 3, 2012

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 Mon­tréal.  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 every­thing.” 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 sta­tis­tics. “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, Mon­tréal 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 courts…it’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. Source: Coast, The (CN NS) Copy­right: 2012 Coast Pub­lish­ing Con­tact: letters@​thecoast.​ns.​ca Web­site: http://​www​.the​coast​.ns​.ca/

ea6f4f9e35ensary.jpg 150x102 Is Medical Marijuana Going To Pot?

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Is Med­ical Mar­i­juana Going To Pot?

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