Marijuana: an issue of health... and safety
As more British Columbians turn to pot to alleviate pain, there's a growing municipal concern about the spinoffs of grow ops: an increased risk of fire, theft and violence.
Harry Cole rolls a joint at a small table at BC's Compassion Club on Commercial Drive. Nearby, others peruse a daily menu board for a specific strain of marijuana or baked goods laced with pot while they wait their turn to go behind one of three closed curtains to receive their order.
Some of the strains will help them sleep or stop them from throwing up. Others will reinvigorate and energize them after a restless night.
Cole's thin fingers work constantly as he rolls the bud in thin paper to smoke later. Around him, people chat quietly in the colourful, dimly lit room, which is more akin to a comfortable lounge than some of Vancouver's other stark, white-walled medical marijuana dispensaries.
His voice is low and raspy as he describes how the medical pot has helped ease the nausea and pain of the throat cancer he was diagnosed with last year. The 43-year-old has tried other painkillers, but said he's allergic to most of them. Once a month, he visits the Vancouver-based club to get his medical pot supply, which he always smokes in a joint or a pipe.
"I've found medical marijuana has been an asset," he said, adding there isn't much else that works for him.
Cole is among a growing number of people turning to medical cannabis to help ease pain, particularly if they're suffering from terminal illnesses such as cancer or AIDS. The rise in medical pot users has led to a proliferation of pot growers and compassion clubs across B.C., spawning problems for law enforcement, fire officials and municipalities.
Cries that the program is rife with abuse - leading to house fires, violent home invasions and black-market dealing - has prompted Health Canada to review the program.
"You'd think there would be a few plants on the sundeck or in the window, but that's not the way it works. People are taking it up as a business and helping people grow it," Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz said.
"Our concern is it's being sold on the street or on the black market. If Health Canada doesn't get a handle on this ... we already have a huge problem, but it'll become enormous."
Nearly 3,000 people in BC have taken the legal route and sought a medical marijuana permit from Health Canada to possess medicinal pot.
Patients must have a doctor's certificate - for conditions ranging from cancer, HIV/ AIDS, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis to muscle spasms - to apply for the permit to either grow their own pot, buy dried marijuana from Health Canada or have a designated person grow the drug for them.
The Health Canada pot is grown by Prairie Plant Systems Incorporated in Saskatchewan, for $5 a gram, about half the street value. A package of seeds costs $20, plus tax.
For some, the wait for a permit can be too long or bureaucratic and they end up getting their drugs on the street. Others, like Cole, visit compassion clubs, which are illegal storefront dispensaries popping up across Metro Vancouver and the province.
In Vancouver alone, there are at least five compassion club dispensaries, along with one in Maple Ridge and others in Kelowna, Nelson, Victoria, Vernon and Nanaimo. A new dispensary, called Metrotown Medicinal Society, recently opened on Kingsway in Burnaby, while another may open in New Westminster.
Marijuana activists predict the number of dispensaries will double within the next few years as the demand for the medicinal drug continues to grow, following a trend that has been rising since Health Canada first announced the medical marijuana program in 2002.
Compassion clubs and dispensaries operate in a grey area in Canada because while the courts say it is unconstitutional to deny marijuana to people who are ill, it's illegal to sell pot to people not registered with Health Canada. Those who run the dispensaries argue they have the courts on their side because people have a right to use the drug.
And more people are clamouring to get it.
When the Health Canada medical marijuana program began, 378 permits to produce medical marijuana were issued in Canada. As of January this year, a total of 5,831 Canadians were licensed to cultivate or produce marijuana for medical purposes, according to Health Canada. Of those, 4,493 people hold a personal-use production licence and 1,392 hold a designated-person production licence under the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations.
Applications to possess medical marijuana have also more than tripled per month, according to the Health Canada website, to 350 per month in 2009 from 100 per month in 2007.
Demand at local compassion clubs underscores that trend. When the BC Compassion Club opened on Vancouver's Pender Street 14 years ago, before moving to Commercial Drive, it had just 100 clients. It now has 6,500 registered members, with about 4,000 of those active in the club.
The rising demand means new clients must wait at least five weeks for an appointment for the mandatory 90-minute consultation at the club, which boasts a wellness centre and apothecary as well as the dispensary.
"Medical marijuana is here to stay," said Jeet-Kei Leung, spokesman for the BC Compassion Club. "The question is really what is the best way to provide it?"
It's a question that haunts Metro Vancouver civic officials, who say it's becoming difficult to balance the rights of medical marijuana users with the safety of their communities. Mayors insist they don't care if people grow it, but they want to know where the pot is being grown.
Health Canada won't release the location of medical marijuana growing operations because of privacy concerns. This means often the first time municipalities hear about it is when a home catches fire, is ripped off or BC Hydro notices sharp spikes in power use.
Fire officials say in a home without a growing operation, the risk of fire is estimated to be a one-in-525 chance; if marijuana is being grown in the house, the chance rises to one in 22.
That risk led Pitt Meadows council to approve a change to its zoning bylaws banning medical marijuana production in residential or agricultural areas after two homes with marijuana growing operations burnt down a few years ago.
But Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis said Health Canada could help by simply telling municipalities where the permits are so cities can ensure the homes are safe. His city has tracked 13 medical marijuana growing operations using an electrical fire safety system that shows when a home is consuming three times more energy than average. About seven of those homes had their power cut off until they upgraded their electrical system.
"We're not questioning whether people have the right to choose marijuana for medical things," Garis said. "We're concerned [the growers] don't meet zoning regulations."
There also has been a rise in reports of vandalism, theft of marijuana crops and violence, he added. In March, a Pitt Meadows family was threatened by armed men who broke into their home searching for medical cannabis in what police say was a case of "mistaken identity." No pot was being grown in the house, police said.
In Maple Ridge, a man was struck over the head with a crowbar in a similar incident, while in Langley's Brookswood community, an armed raid of a medical marijuana growing operation prompted the two Langley mayors to call on the federal government to cancel licences for such operations.
"Anywhere marijuana is grown, there's a risk of violence," said RCMP Const. Michael McLaughlin, spokesman for federal programs. "We are seeing incidents. It does happen and as police we'd like to caution people about that."
Mayors also argue the system is being abused, with growers hijacking the program to fly under law enforcement radar and grow more plants than the number they're entitled to under their permits.
In Maple Ridge, Mounties arrested a man who was allegedly growing more medical marijuana than he was licensed to sell. It was one of the first cases in the Vancouver area where a legal grower had the drug seized by police.
Earlier this year, the Comox Valley RCMP's drug section busted the North Island Compassion Club in Courtenay, with two people facing charges of possession for the purpose of trafficking. Police said at the time they were concerned the club had become "a front for marijuana dealing."
McLaughlin noted that if police hear allegations of abuse in the system they can't search the facility until they contact Health Canada because they don't know where the legal marijuana growing operations are located. "We don't want to interfere with anyone who's obeying Canadian law."
Frustrated municipal mayors and fire officials have been lobbying the federal government, the Union of BC Municipalities and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities for years for changes in the medical marijuana program. They all want the same thing: More regulation.
Chilliwack, which had the dubious reputation in 2002 of having the second largest number of illegal growing operations in BC, is also backing the two Langleys in its lobbying effort to cancel marijuana growing licences. Gaetz said Chilliwack city officials have identified 50 medical marijuana growing operations in the city and predicts the number could grow to 500 next year.
Most mayors argue medical marijuana should be taken out of local homes and grown in a centralized facility in the Lower Mainland. Those who require the drug can then get it by prescription.
"It's out of control; we have no idea where the licences are," Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender said. "We're saying, 'Fix it.'" Health Canada said in an email that it is "considering measures to reform" the program because of its significant growth. The review would focus on three key objectives: Public health, safety and security; reasonable access to marijuana for medical purposes; and examining the overall costs to Health Canada.
"Any changes to the program will balance the need to provide reasonable legal access to this controlled substance with the government's responsibility to regulate it," the email said.
Growers and marijuana activists agree something needs to change. And they're all lining up to take charge.
Some marijuana activists are calling for the medical cannabis program to be placed under provincial jurisdiction. Others want Health Canada to abide by a 2009 BC Supreme Court ruling in which Ottawa was given a year to fix the medical marijuana access regulations so compassion clubs or producers can get together and run a common marijuana growing operation.
Washington State is already taking steps in that direction after the senate last month passed a bill that would create a patient registry and require dispensaries and producers to be licensed. The issue is under consideration in the house, according to Washington's Department of Health.
"It becomes a health care issue because people have a right to use marijuana," said Dana Larsen, a marijuana activist who is involved with dispensaries in Vancouver, Burnaby and Maple Ridge. "These [dispensaries] certainly are coming anyway, they're all over the place. Get them together and create rules and regulations. Bring it above ground."
Larsen noted compassion clubs and dispensaries not only have the expertise to dispense medical pot, but most have their own pool of unidentified growers, who are contracted to provide them with the marijuana they need.
The BC Compassion Club, for instance, has a dozen growers across the province who are at risk of prosecution if they're caught. Larsen noted as more dispensaries pop up, there's a need to regulate them to ensure they're following strict regulations. "People are going to see this as a business industry," he said. "I'm concerned that as the industry grows, other operators may not follow the same strict rules we do. They may make us look bad."
At the BC Compassion Club, those who want to access medical marijuana must have an application filled out by a doctor and stamped or faxed to the club. They then go through a mandatory consultation before they can access pot, which is sold on a sliding scale of between $5 and $30, or locally grown herbs, such as catnip, raspberry leaf, lemon balm, prickly ash bark and lavender at the in-house apothecary.
Leung said his facility is "an example of dispensary-based supply being quite safe because the amount of production facilities are reduced dramatically." This means there is more control and regulation on where the marijuana is coming from.
But Sam Mellace, who grows medical marijuana in the Fraser Valley for his leukemia and made a failed bid for the federal growing contract, said the program should be run by the private sector.
He argues "a house was never built for a grow op" and growers aren't taking enough security measures to protect their crops and their homes. At his farm in the Fraser Valley, a heavy gate blocks the entrance, which is surveyed by cameras and guard dogs.
When The Vancouver Sun recently visited the farm to see Mellace, two men in a pickup truck roared menacingly toward the locked and secure gate, demanding to know who the visitors were. Mellace didn't show up for the interview because he was opening a medical marijuana dispensary in Ontario; he also plans to open one in BC.
"I blame Health Canada for not checking people," he said in a phone interview. "There are people out there that aren't even sick who have licences."
Lawyer Kirk Tousaw, who has represented a number of compassion clubs and marijuana permit-holders in his practice, agrees the federal government must start licensing existing products in a large-scale way and make it easier to grow for multiple people, noting many people can't afford medicinal marijuana without a permit from Health Canada.
If municipalities truly want to reduce the criminal element, the government should allow the legal distribution of marijuana, he said.
"As the public becomes more accustomed to the distribution of medical marijuana to people and it comes out of the shadows and into the light ... people will get more comfortable with the idea," he said. "Let's start by accepting the fact that people use medicinal cannabis, that it works for them."
Sita von Windheim, who has been growing medical marijuana since 2008 to help relieve migraine pain, said she had to wait eight years to get a Health Canada permit because she couldn't find a doctor to sign her certificate. Once she got it, she had more work ahead of her: Growing her 25 plants with other growers in a cooperative medicinal cannabis garden at a facility in Metro Vancouver.
On a recent visit to her garden, von Windheim tenderly stroked her "girls" as they strained toward the light of the heat lamps. The indoor garden is equipped with timer board lights, a dedicated electrical line and a circular fan system for proper ventilation. It takes about 16 weeks for a marijuana cutting to be ready for harvest. It then has to dry.
"People think growing pot is really easy and you can just set up a few pots in your basement, but it doesn't work like that," she said, as she tidied up the beds. "Cannabis is very strain specific. We already know the strain Health Canada grows does not work for everyone. You have to experiment to get the strain that's right for you."
Von Windheim noted that while she had to wait years for her permit, others are finding it easier to access medicinal pot because more doctors are getting on board. She added many of the users are like her; people who smoked pot in the 1960s for pleasure and are now using it to relieve pain.
But Leung, at the BC Compassion Club, argues there's another new segment of pot-smoker out there: An older crowd who never smoked pot in their youth but find it works for them as they get older. More than half the clients at the B.C. Compassion Club are over the age of 50 and had never tried pot before.
"What we're seeing now is people who have had no previous experience," Leung said. "They've tried everything else and their doctors are sending them to us."
Surrey's Anthony Gock, 44, has been visiting the Vancouver-based compassion club for the past two years to help relieve the pain associated with a brain hemorrhage in 2009. The hemorrhage has left him with chronic headaches, dizziness, nausea and the inability to keep food down. He was only able to eat about three to five meals a week, mostly fluids and crackers. His doctors recommended Gravol, which just put him to sleep. The weight fell off his bones.
Although he could apply for a Health Canada permit to grow marijuana, Gock said he lives in a Cloverdale townhouse and doubts the smell and hassle would go over well with his neighbours. But the marijuana - which he smokes because he can't stomach the baked goods - has boosted his appetite and helped him gain back the weight he lost.
"Now I eat at least a meal a day and a couple of snacks," said Gock, who comes into the society every two to three weeks to get some medical marijuana. "There are no other options other than this. This has definitely made a big difference in my life."