For the past six years, Sophie Andronas’s routine has included smoking two grams of marijuana a day to alleviate the twitches, spasms and pain associated with multiple sclerosis. And though a permit from Health Canada means she is one of 3,439 Canadians allowed to grow and possess marijuana, Andronas has relied on the Montreal Compassion Centre for both product and plants.
That was until police shut down the centre, along with four other Quebec marijuana dispensaries, in early June: not only had she lost a source of medicine, but she realized that buying from the centre technically meant she could be charged with trafficking or possession. By law, medical marijuana users must procure their weed from Health Canada, and not from the handful of illegal compassion clubs across the country.
In recent months, police shut down Toronto’s CALM and the Medical Cannabis Club of Guelph, Ont., charging the operators with trafficking, while the coordinated Quebec sweep netted three established clubs and two upstart franchises where operators were giving away free marijuana with new memberships. (Police and club operators in Ontario say there was no link between the Toronto and Guelph raids.)
While the closures have wreaked havoc on those who use their services, some in the community see a silver lining: a chance to take on Health Canada’s medical marijuana regulations in court. “I haven’t exactly been waiting for the day, but I’ve been preparing for it,” says Marc-Boris St-Maurice, one of 35 arrested in the Quebec raids. A marijuana activist, occasional politician and owner of the Montreal Compassion Club, St-Maurice was charged with trafficking and has six lawyers on the case, which he says will focus on the problems of accessibility. (His first court appearance was scheduled for June 23.)
Medical marijuana has been legal in Canada since 1999. For the last 11 years, the federal government has been responsible for screening applicants, as well as growing, packaging and selling marijuana and marijuana seeds. But as a general rule, the medical marijuana community gives the government a thumbs down. Though Health Canada spokesperson Christelle Legault said the federal government “strives to provide a high-quality source of dried marijuana to authorized persons at a reasonable cost,” several users contacted by Maclean’s spoke of backlogs of up to six months in the licensing process and subpar marijuana. Even police agree the system is dysfunctional. “There is a step missing in Health Canada’s regulation” that makes it hard for users to get marijuana, says Antonio Iannantuoni, commander of the Montreal morality squad that oversaw the Montreal busts. (Iannantuoni says only the compassion club operators, not clients, were targeted.)
Compassion clubs have filled that void—and though they are illegal, at least some of them have become local institutions. The Montreal Compassion Centre and CALM and have been around for eight and 13 years respectively; Guelph’s club even had its buildings and marijuana crops insured, and claimed to be the first Canadian compassion club to accept Visa and MasterCard. All three required proof of chronic ailment or pain.
And yet, people like Andronas break the law when they use the services. “I’m suffering because of the stigma,” says the 42-year-old mother of two. “I feel like I’ve been deemed a drug user because of the medicine I choose to take.”