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Trying Medical Marijuana


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If Victoria deputy police chief Bill Naughton takes the stand in a drug trial starting this week, he will testify on behalf of two men accused of growing marijuana. While it's strange for a police officer to defend alleged pot growers in court–and it's not yet certain he will appear–the grow-op in question was an unusual one.

West Shore RCMP officers arrested Michael Swallow and Mathew Beren during a May, 2004, raid of an East Sooke site that provided high quality cannabis to the Vancouver Island Compassion Society. The VICS, in turn, supplied the cannabis from the site to patients who were using it to treat various ailments.

"This was different from your normal grow-op," says Philippe Lucas, VICS executive director and a former city council candidate. "We don't deny anything we're doing. It's the questions of why and how that are the main issues."

Lucas says Swallow was just visiting the facility and not actually involved. RCMP officers charged Swallow and Berens with production of marijuana and with possession of more than three kilograms of the drug for the purpose of trafficking.

For several years medical marijuana has existed in a convoluted legal grey area. Since a 2001 decision, says Kirk Tousaw, a Vancouver lawyer working on the case, Canada's prohibition laws have been deemed constitutional only as long as there is an adequate program in place to provide marijuana to medical users. The program is in place, he says, but it's not good.

"It's still tremendously difficult for people to become licensed medical marijuana users and it's still very hard for people to access a quality supply of medicine," says Tousaw, who is a board member of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. The government started buying marijuana grown in an abandoned mine in Manitoba and supplying it to some registered medical marijuana users. "We don't think the government's monopoly supplier–which only produces a single strain that's been the subject of some criticisms by users–we don't think that's good enough for the very sick people who use medical marijuana in this country."

In 2003 the courts ordered Health Canada to make changes to its medical marijuana program that Tousaw says have not yet been made. "We're now five or six years into this program and it's still not doing the job it needs to do for sick people in this country," he says.

A spokesperson for Health Canada did not return calls by press time.

Lucas says the VICS legal team will argue the facility was filling a legally-recognized need the government was unable to fill. "Our goal is to illustrate the problems with the federal medical marijuana program." He describes the site, which cost around $40,000 to start, as a "white labcoat" operation where growers developed strains to treat particular conditions. If they had two strains that worked well for chronic pain, for instance, they would breed them together to see if they could create a plant that did an even better job.

"We lost about four or five years of strain research just through that raid," says Lucas. RCMP officers destroyed some 900 plants. "They chopped and took everything."

Two officers who were at the raid declined to comment while the case is before the courts.

The facility also grew marijuana to use in clinical trials, and hemp, with none of the high-causing active ingredient THC, to use as a placebo in VICS research. The growers even had plants growing from seeds provided by the federal government to show that better growing techniques could improve the product Health Canada was offering medical marijuana users. "It didn't have to be as poor quality as what they were sending out," says Lucas.

At the time of the raid, the VICS was helping over 400 patients. It was one of two clubs in Victoria providing medical marijuana in the city, and one of a handful of such groups across the country. Since the raid VICS has grown to some 660 patients, but it was driven back to buying cannabis on the black market at a higher cost.

Lucas says if deputy chief Naughton testifies, it will be to talk about the advantages of supplying marijuana to medical users in a way that doesn't require them to buy it on the street corner, and on the lack of complaints about the VICS clinic on Cormorant Street near the provincial ministry of health.

Confirmed witnesses will include Colorado researcher and biology professor Bob Melamede, Canadian AIDS Society consultant and former Health Canada epidemiologist Lynne Belle-Isle and Conservative senator Pierre Claude Nolin. Nolin chaired a 2002 senate committee that recommended legalizing marijuana. Several VICS members will talk about the stress and other effects of the raid.

The judge could legalize VICS's work, says Lucas, and the case could also result in the court legalizing marijuana for all users. If cannabis prohibition prevents people who are legally allowed to use medical marijuana from getting their medicine, then those laws could be found to be unconstitutional. Says Lucas, "Although that's not the goal of our case, that's a possible outcome."

Or as Tousaw puts it, "If we didn't have marijuana prohibition, sick people wouldn't be in danger of going to jail." Tousaw has also worked on high-profile cases representing Marc Emery and Steve Kubby, and he advocates reforming Canadian drug laws. "It's clear to me, and to anyone who takes a long hard look at this, marijuana prohibition is a failed policy."

The constitutional challenge will cost around $100,000, Lucas says. The VICS has already raised about half of that through donations and continues to fundraise. "The other half is still a struggle for us."

Lucas says there are over a million medical marijuana users in Canada. The federal program to provide the medicine has only registered 500 users. Compassion societies across the country help over 10,000 people. Asked where the rest get their medicine, Lucas says, "They're buying it on the street corner and frankly they're vulnerable to arrest right now."

Newshawk: CoZmO - 420Magazine.com
Source: Monday Magazine (Canada)
Copyright: 2007 Monday Magazine
Website: BCNG Portals Page
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