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Of Cannabis and Compassion

I'm going to take you on a trip. A drug trip. The drug is marijuana. But don't worry -- you, the reader, don't have to smoke it, eat it, buy it or sell it. You just have to think about it.

And meet the people who do just that, all their waking hours. We'll take this trip together. I'll be your guide. And when it's over, you'll realize that marijuana is not what you think it is.

For one thing, it's no longer illegal in Canada, where this trip takes place. Or, if we need a finer shade of grey, it's tolerated, or quasi-legal -- legal under some circumstances, but not others.

For another, the marijuana trade in British Columbia (B.C.) is not the sure-fire million-dollar bonanza hyped in the Canadian and United States media. In fact, the vast majority of people in the trade make a modest living, or less. And some sell marijuana not for the money at all, but to help others and advance the cause of legalization, decriminalization, or even the celebration of pot as the wonder plant a God-given, mind-expanding, universal source of food, fuel, fiber and healing.

Our trip begins at the CBC in downtown Victoria. No, not the radio station, but the Cannabis Buyers Club, a white and red low-rent building on Johnson. The sign on the door says Smith's Books, and in the window you see hard-covers with titles like The Complete Beauty Workshop and A Day in the Forest. But I'm here to tell you this book store is a front, quite literally. The same used books sit in the window, week after month.

Let's go in. Smell the incense, hear Jimi Hendrix on the tape deck. In the back room, a well-worn couch, a few chairs, a desk with a scale and three small glass jars filled with marijuana. The jars are hand-labelled: Happy Robot, Strawberry Red-Haired Bob. Prices are posted on the wall: $10 a gram and $215 an ounce for triple-A indoor bud, the highest grade of potent flowering tops.

Pick up a jar. Those tiny ice-like formations on the bud are THC crystals. Now smell it. If you're a marijuana user, you'll say, "Wow!"

You're probably wondering how anyone can sell marijuana in a bookstore in downtown Victoria. Well, this isn't just any marijuana, this is medical marijuana. It's for pain, nausea or depression, to stimulate your appetite or relieve the symptoms of glaucoma, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis. Or whatever else ails you. If you don't like to smoke, the CBC offers marijuana cookies -- chocolate chip, shortbread, ginger snaps, 50 cents or a buck -- or a vial of oil-based pot salve to rub on your skin.

Sit down on the couch. Watch people come in. Many buy a gram or an eighth of an ounce. The woman behind the desk weighs it carefully. Don't stare at the man in the wheel-chair with the dirty hat, the same guy you've seen panhandling. Or the husky, dark-haired man in the T-shirt who barely survived an accident and moves as slowly as a baby learning to walk.

Of Pot and Proof

Here's the shopkeeper, Ted Smith. He's tall, lean, 32, wears jeans worn through at the knees and a T-shirt with the message, "You might as well grow it. There's no fish or trees left any more."

To become a member of the CBC, you need proof of an incurable medical condition. That sounds severe; but besides frightening terminal illnesses like cancer and AIDS, "incurable" can also cover backache, depression, asthma. "Proof" can be a note from your doctor or other healer, a WCB form or even the inhaler you use to clear your lungs.

Smith has been selling medical marijuana in Victoria for nearly six years, and while he's never been arrested for it, he can never be sure he won't be. He struggles for the words to explain the CBC's legal status. "It's a grey area, a very fine grey area...but it's still grey."

This status is a result of a delicate balance between courts, police, the federal government and medical marijuana sellers and buyers. Medical marijuana enjoys a level of immunity from the law due to several court cases acquitting patients who use it, including an Ontario ruling that ordered the government to make medical marijuana available to those needing it.

So the federal government is growing a crop in -- of all places -- an abandoned copper mine in Flin Flon, Manitoba. That crop won't be ready until next February, so could a judge convict a patient for buying marijuana on the quasi-legal market, if none is available legally? Not likely. At least until February, it seems Smith's grey area is as close to white as it's ever been.

"If it's not illegal," he says, "it must be legal."

Smith feels the CBC hasn't been busted because of his work as a community activist. He's worked with groups that help street people and inner city youth, and served on the mayor's task force on downtown safety. For a marijuana dealer, he enjoys a measure of public respectability. But discretion is still advised. CBC members are not allowed to smoke pot on the premises, or resell their purchases (tempting, because the price per ounce is significantly lower than street costs).

Suddenly our conversation is interrupted by a man and his teenage son. The man calmly explains that, like him, his son is HIV-positive. He believes his son contracted it from him, as did the rest of the family, by using the same dishes and cutlery. He wants Smith to supply his son with marijuana "so he doesn't have to get it on the street." Smith tells him he'll have to come back with a doctor's certificate.

Buying pot at the CBC may be quasi-legal, but tolerance is at the discretion of the police. Growers and dealers who supply the CBC may also enjoy legal immunity especially if they can satisfy a judge that they only sell their crop for medical marijuana. At least one local indoor grower has a sign posted at his grow-op indicating just that.

When it comes to openly smoking marijauna on the street, police tolerance decreases, although the bust usually results in confiscation, not charges. "This is a tourist town and the downtown merchants don't like to see people smoking pot on the streets," says Smith, who is working to change that.

In the marijuana movement, there are two types of reformer: medical marijuana suppliers who sell pot to the sick and activists who challenge the laws through advocacy and street protest. Smith does both. He's distributed free pot cookies and joints, and led mass smoke-ins at the University of Victoria, on downtown streets and in local parts. He's also written a book called Hempology 101 - self-published and hand-bound with hemp rope. In it, he writes that cannabis can be used for over 30,000 products. To him, marijuana is not just a drug or a herb. It's a cure, a political cause, a subculture, a religion, a revolution.

Ironically (but not surprisingly), Smith's out-front street work has led to charges of trafficking and possession for the purpose, although his street activism involves only a tiny fraction of the pot he distributes through the CBC. One arrest was for a smoke-in at University of Victoria, another for distributing pot cookies at the Central Library. He seems eager to argue his case in court next month. It will be one of several marijuana cases due to be heard across the country this fall that will be argued on constitutional grounds.

Acquittals or discharges could further weaken the drug laws, or (the dream of the pot lobby) throw them out entirely.

The issue has been passed around like a dead roach at the political level for more than 30 years in Canada. The evidence that persecution of marijuana smokers does more harm than good, that marijuana is relatively benign when used recreationally, and a helpful medicine for the chronically ill far outweighs arguments against legalization. But marijuana has been kept in criminal chains by our politicians, drug lawyers, pharmaceutical companies and other beneficiaries of the war on drugs. Behind their backs, marijuana is gradually becoming legalized by default.

Compassion Club

Now I'll blindfold you because Victoria's other pot shop -- yes, there are two -- doesn't want its location revealed. It's the Vancouver Island Compassion Society, 360-8955. Its website is www.thevics.com.

We're here. Take off the blindfold and meet Philippe Lucas, the society's founder and director. In his button-down blue checked shirt, cuffed dockers and mod glasses, Lucas looks more like a refugee from JDS Uniphase than a stoner. The VICS shop resembles a medical office, or at least an alternative therapy clinic.

Lucas claims to be one of the leading experts on medical marijuana in the country, and reels off an impressive list of cures of conditions ranging from Huntington's chorea to Hepatitis C. He talks rapidly, describing the relief he provides to his 200 members, and his 70 percent to 80 percent success rate.

In particular, it helps AIDS patients, whose drug treatments often produce nausea and loss of appetite. "They're literally wasting away. Their body is constantly fighting the disease and they can't process the food they eat." There are no effective pharmaceutical appetite stimulants, he says. A toke in the morning literally gets them out of bed, and as any dope smoker will attest, to the breakfast table.

This can save or at least extend their lives. It's ironic that we're talking about how marijuana can help, when the scare stories of another era focused on how much it could hurt, drive you insane, leave you lethargic, abandoned and penniless.

Lucas is careful about approving members of his club. Patients and their doctors must complete a three-page form, and the VICS confirm the condition with the doctor before setting up an appointment for registration. It may seem excessively bureaucratic, but Lucas says he's careful. Despite all his cross-checking, the compassion society got busted last year when it was located in the town of Oak Bay.

Someone broke into the office and stole some supplies, and when Lucas complained to the Oak Bay police, they charged him with trafficking and possession. That didn't shut the VICS down, but it did encourage them to relocate on the edge of downtown Victoria.

I find it remarkable that these dealers of medical pot seem to be motivated more by the cause than any personal gain. Lucas says the VICS owes him $20,000 in unpaid wages and he's forgiven an $8,000 debt the society owed him. For three months after the bust, he didn't collect a salary He says the club provides him with "a living wage and nothing else." So why does he do it? "I'm doing something that interests me and can help people."

Smith seems to get by on even less, living in a one-room loft apartment close to the CBC. He hitchhikes to his girlfriend's house on the weekends. "I could make a lot of money if I wanted to, but I only take enough to feed myself. Everything else is invested back into the club," he says.

Cash Crop

So if it's, not at the medical marijuana level, where's the big dope money in B.C.? It must be reaped by the growers, those under ground green thumbs with high powered lights and ingenious tricks to fool the cops and the U.S. border patrol.

But evidence indicates few growers make much money either. Lucas estimates that three to five percent are doing well, 75 per cent are at a subsistence level and 20 percent are losing their shirts. Others in the industry, including several growers I talked to, confirm his estimate. The National Post had a story last summer about the easy million-dollar take growing pot in B.C., but the reality is it's a demanding, difficult business that churns out scores of paupers and few millionaires.

The plants need daily care, costs of equipment and power are high, and a host of bugs, worms and moulds -- and knocks on the door at night -- can wipe you out.

Yet the allure of easy money in a homegrown business, and the shortage of other options, has attracted thousands of newcomers to the trade in recent years, driving down the price from as high as $3,700 a pound to the current $2,400, squeezing profit margins even tighter. So where's the $6-billion B.C. pot economy touted by the Organized Crime Agency? It must be in Vancouver, the big, er, smoke. Let's go to visit Marc Emery, the Prince of Pot.

We find him in the biggest head shop you've ever seen. It's the headquarters of the Marijuana Party, as well as web-based PotTV and Cannabis Culture, the marijuana magazine, all part of Emery's empire. Emery is a Tim Robbins look-alike, hair slicked back, jeans and open-necked shirt, rocket-fuel energy and endless, rapid-fire replies to my questions. He sells marijuana seeds, hundreds of varieties, some for as much as $40 each, from his website, emeryseeds.com.

Now here's where the money is. He takes in $2-million-plus a year. But the Prince of Pot, it turns out, is even more of a do-gooder than Smith and Lucas. He claims he gives away 90 percent of his money to the cause. Name an important marijuana challenge in B.C., including Lucas's, and it's likely Emery is footing the legal bill. Last year, he estimates, he put up $400,000 for court costs alone.

He also funds his media outlets and the Marijuana Party which ran candidates in every B.C. riding last spring. "That's what I raise the money for, not for my personal wealth."

The B.C. marijuana industry earns more like $4 billion than $6 billion, says Emery, spread among thousands of growers, processors, shippers and dealers across the province. A decentralized, diversified industry and a cash crop that brings a consistent flow of U.S. dollars into the province, and no countervailing tariffs. The price doubles once you get it across the border.

As his machine-gun rap continues, someone walks by Emery's desk and asks for some bud. Emery reaches into a bag and gives him a handful. A few minutes later, he gives away more. No one who asks, it seems, is turned away. I'm tempted, but hey, we're working. Later, another man comes by and Emery peels off $1,250 in $50- dollar bills and gives it [to] him, then checks off the amount on a chit. This man asks for pot as well, and Emery hands him the rest of the bag.

Emery's big push right now is to open as many medical marijuana shops as he can before pot is fully legal, which he predicts will be by the end of 2002. He plans to start 10 by the end of this year. "I have to make sure distribution doesn't just end up in government hands."

When pot is fully legal, Emery and other Campaigners won't give up the fight. They'll demand a court of inquiry to seek compensation for the thousands of people whose lives were ruined by the war on drugs.

"It's outrageous. The government has known for 30 or 40 years there's nothing wrong with marijuana. We'll have to find out why the government did nothing while people were hunted down?" And with that he's gone, out the back door. He has to run his seed business, out of a safe house somewhere in the Lower Mainland, that he rotates every two or three weeks.

So what have we learned on our trip? That the movable force called the marijuana revolution has only just begun.

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