A Case Study: The Vancouver Island Compassion Society
There were no guarantees. Of course, we were all optimistic, but as I walked into the courtroom that day, no one could be certain of the outcome. We stood up as the judge entered. As we sat down again ? myself behind my able attorney John Conroy - my wife, friends and supporters in the audience, silently awaiting my fate (and the fate of the Vancouver Island Compassion Society) ? the judge announced that he was going to read the entire legal decision aloud. Veiw a summary of the court proceedings
Judge Higinbotham began to outline the background of the long case. Since my arrest in November of 2000 I had appeared in court over 20 times: "Philippe Lucas is President of the Vancouver Island Compassion Society, an organization that provides marijuana to its members for medical purposes. His activities in that regard resulted in a charge of possession of less than 3 kilograms of marijuana for the purpose of trafficking, contrary to section 5(2) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, to which he entered a plea of guilty. Mr. Lucas has requested he be discharged absolutely, and the issue in this hearing is whether an absolute discharge is justified." [Samples]
Over the 25 minutes that it took the judge to read through his decision, I had a chance to reflect on the long court battle, as well as what had gone right (and wrong) since our opening day on the 1st of October, 1999. At the VICS, our goal has always been to help those with a legitimate medical need gain access to a safe, affordable supply of cannabis. As a secondary goal, we hope to demonstrate that this can be done in a manner that is both legally and socially acceptable. For us, this means two things: 1) complete transparency of action and accounting. 2) anticipating and addressing possible public and police concerns regarding our actions and organization.
The former has been addressed by registering as a provincial non-profit society. Non-profit status takes away one of the prosecutor?s main line of argument: that we are in this for the money. As a non-profit, ownership of the Vancouver Island Compassion Society remains in the hands of its 250 current members. All of the financial records for the organization are submitted to and reviewed by the relevant government organization. During the court case, Judge Higinbotham had the prosecution agree that there was a clear distinction between the VICS making enough money to continue its operations helping those in need, and actually profiteering from the desperation of the sick. Our status as a non-profit also helps us gain public support; it reflects our efforts to work within the system when possible. Furthermore, non-profit status serves as a business licence, allowing us to forgo the city bureaucracy involved with obtaining a licence. Lastly, as a non-profit, we receive discounts on some essential services, such as the internet, intra-office security, banking, etc. Any and all money saved can be a real boost to a small start-up organization.
The VICS? original location - in a residential area in Oak Bay - meant that we had to anticipate the very real concerns of the local community in our business model. Firstly, we were wise enough to look at what was already working. The British Columbia Compassion Club Society (BCCCS) had been in operation for almost three years before the VICS came along, and we learned much from their experience and success. Bureaucracy and paperwork are the most dreaded aspects of any legitimate business, so instead of reinventing the wheel, we modeled our forms on those of the BCCCS, making appropriate changes where necessary.
[Robin] Our residential location meant that (unlike the BCCCS) no smoking was to be allowed on site. Furthermore, we created a contract informing members that any redistribution of product would lead to their immediate expulsion. It is important for applicants to realize that, due to the continued prohibition on cannabis, membership in a compassion society is a benefit, rather than a right. We hope to extend this benefit to as many people with a legitimate need as possible, but always with the goal of protecting the integrity and legal security of the society and its 250 current members.
Modern science has proven time and again that cannabis is an incredibly diverse, safe and effective medicine. As such, the VICS operates under the belief that the medical and research communities should be natural allies in the fight for patient access to cannabis therapies. We have worked hard to provide information to physicians on a one-on-one basis as well as through public presentations. The VICS encourages continued research (and free access to information) in the area of therapeutic cannabis; we are currently engaged in the development of a Strain/Symptom Survey Protocol with Dr. Marc Ware from McGill University. We are also in the process of developing a survey protocol with Dr. Diana Sylvestre from the University of California, San Francisco and the BCCCS, that will monitor the potential increase in the success rate of Hep-C sufferers who use cannabis while undergoing interferon ribovarin treatment.
Since scientific research and observational studies have found cannabis to be effective in treating the symptoms associated with serious conditions like Hep-C, HIV/AIDS, MS and cancer, the VICS strived to establish a relationship with the relevant social/welfare organizations in our area. We have also felt it to be our responsibility to address the federal government regarding the practical needs of Canadian medical marijuana users. This has led to a meeting with then Health Minister Alan Rock, and to two invitations for an audience from the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, to whom we presented practical information on the unworkability of Health Canada Marijuana Medical Access Regulations, as well as the problems currently facing the compassion clubs that have arisen to fill this void in the safe supply of cannabis treatments.
And yet, despite all of our hard work, in November of 2000 we had the poor luck of having our organization broken into and robbed. When I made the naïve mistake of dutifully reporting this incident to the local authorities, the police showed up at the VICS with a warrant for my arrest.
For better or for worse, the VICS would never be the same. Whereas we had previously gone out of our way to maintain a low public profile, we were now forced to call upon the support of the public and the press in order to assert a stronger voice in this debate and to call attention to this inexcusable breach of justice and compassion. We had not asked for this public role - I had honestly hoped to continue to quietly help those in need with as little fanfare as possible - but now I was being charged with trafficking, and the VICS had been dragged into the legal system. Overnight, a petty thief and then the Oak Bay Police had taken the medicine from the mouths of some of the area?s sickest citizens. Overnight, my ability to travel, my work with children, my legal status, all were instantly in serious jeopardy. Overnight, everything had changed.
In March of this year, as part of a deal with the prosecution, I went into the local provincial courthouse, stood before a judge, and was asked how I plead to the charge of "possession for the purpose of trafficking". I looked up, and against all of my instinct, and despite all that the VICS had done to contribute to the health and happiness of its many critically and chronically ill members, I answered "guilty, your honour". Those were the hardest, most frustrating three words that I?ve ever had to utter in my life. And now, four months later, I was standing before that same judge, listening to him read off the closing chapter in this long legal battle.
Judge Higinbotham was nearing the end of the sentencing: "Mr. Lucas has established that he is a man of good character who would benefit from a discharge. He has also established that in the circumstances of this case, the granting of a discharge would not be contrary to the public interest. As there is no need to apply rehabilitative principles in terms of a conditional order, I grant him an absolute discharge."
[Reception/waiting room at V.I.C.S.] Relief immediately swept over me. As I turned and hugged my beautiful wife, the cheering supporters were told by the court officer that there was to be "no clapping!", a round of applause went up anyhow. In Judge Higenbotham?s wise 21 page legal decision lay the sweat, tears, and dedication that has made the society strong through a bust, 3 locations, and almost 3 years of constant hard work. The VICS hadn?t changed the laws governing the distribution of medicinal cannabis, but the club?s members and its incredibly dedicated staff had presented a way to successfully work within them.
Through the extensive experience and observation, the compassion clubs of Canada have become an invaluable source of information in regards to cannabis therapeutics. By continuing to work with all levels of government as well as the health/welfare community, the VICS is engaged in making this information available to researchers, physicians and the general public alike, with the sincere hope that with knowledge and understanding will finally come laws and policies that reflect compassion, caring and common sense.
P.S. My special thanks to my wife Mary, John Conroy, Hilary Black, Marc Emery, and especially the VICS staff and members. Without all of your help, the 20 months may have turned out very differently.