Marc Brandl, [email protected]Several days before the London (Ontario) based Cannabis Compassion Centre (CCC) was scheduled to close, center manager Mike Harichy was arrested and charged with possession for the purposes of trafficking and two counts of trafficking. His wife, Lynn Harichy, uses marijuana for her multiple sclerosis and also helps run the center. She created headlines in Canada in 1997 when she was arrested trying to light up a joint in front of a police headquarters (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/013.html#canada). Allegedly Mr. Harichy sold to an undercover officer wanting to buy marijuana for recreational purposes.
Medical marijuana advocates were anxious to keep the medical and recreational issues separate. Prof. Alan Young, an attorney who defends medical marijuana patients in court, and a professor at Osgoode Hall in Toronto, said, if it was a straight sale to an undercover officer, I don't want much to do with the case because unfortunately it could be used to discredit the movement." Hillary Black, who founded and helps run the Compassion Club in Vancouver was not worried about police raids on her establishment after this high profile arrest. Said Black, "We run a very tight organization here. We've been here for two years and have developed a good relationship with the community and with the different HIV and cancer groups in Vancouver. We have a good reputation for being an upstanding organization."
The London CCC had operated with police knowledge since July 1998 (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/038.html#canada). The decision to close the club came when the federal government announced recently it would start clinical studies exploring the medical utility of the plant. Health Minister Allan Rock announced on March 3rd to the House of Commons that Health Canada would soon undertake such studies. "Minister Rock has been discussing the issue of medicinal use for over a year now." Derek Kent, a spokesperson for the Minister, told the WOL, "Two events have paved the way for this announcement. First, health officials went to Great Britain to examine the clinical trials that are taking place. Second, there was an announcement by an office of the UN that encouraged research into the medical use of marijuana which removed potential hurdles in terms of our international [treaty] obligations."
Medicinal marijuana activists were less than impressed, however. "The problem I have is that immediate concerns need to be addressed," said Prof. Young. "Unfortunately patients don't have the luxury of waiting while the government figures out what to do."
Eugene Oscapella, also a lawyer and one of the founding members of Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy (http://fox.nstn.ca/~eoscapel/cfdp/cfdp.html) told the WOL of his impression of the announcement, "In theory it is a step forward -- in fact there is a lot of politics involved. Minister Rock made this announcement the day before a motion was to be debated about legalizing medical marijuana. It was a bit of political gamesmanship, unfortunately. The minister also worded his statement very carefully. He's asked his officials to develop a plan for clinical trials, not start trials immediately. There is always a danger that the plan will take forever to develop."
Currently, only one person in Canada, Terry Parker, an epileptic, is allowed to smoke cannabis legally, after a 1997 court decision granted him a legal exemption (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/022.html#canada).
Minister Rock is also considering exempting medical marijuana patients who aren't part of the clinical trials. "We understand some of the people really need access to marijuana. What we want to do is develop the evidence while still developing a plan that is flexible enough not to be too restrictive to those who cannot get access through the trials."
Professor Young helped a patient afflicted with AIDS apply for the legal exemption but remains skeptical. "I applied September 15th, it's now the end of March and I have not been able to receive any clarification of the process. So even though Mr. Rock seems to have promised that exemptions will be forthcoming, my question to him is what has happened in the last eight months?"
Ms. Black was more optimistic about the trials and has a plan to make the exemption process move ahead. "I think the trials are a good idea, but its been a long time coming. It's important that advocates of medicinal marijuana not back off at this point. This is a time to be applying more pressure rather than less. Any patient that has been given a prescription from their physician for the medical use of cannabis should be given an exemption so they are free to cultivate, carry and consume cannabis."