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Green with empathy

Daniel Lametti steps behind the counter at Montreal’s Compassion Club – a medical marijuana dispensary operating on the fringes of Canadian law

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Every morning when Boris Saint-Maurice shows up for work he breaks the law. Saint-Maurice is the owner of the Compassion Club on the corner of Rachel and Coloniale – a store that sells marijuana illegally to people who can demonstrate a medical need for the drug. He has been arrested for drug trafficking numerous times.

Sitting with Saint-Maurice in a coffee shop drinking tea and pints of beer, he tells me about one of his more memorable arrests. “The third time I got arrested I had, like, 100 grams,” he says. “They brought me to the station and held me overnight. It sucked. I cried. I was, like, freaked out!”

Saint-Maurice claims it was this 1991 arrest that convinced him to become active in the fight for the legalization of marijuana. While in jail, he stumbled upon a group of prisoners smoking hash in the cell’s bathroom.

“So I had two or three tokes,” he says, “and I started to think, ‘Fuck, I’m in jail for possession of pot, and the first thing I do is smoke pot, and the only positive thing that has happened to me is pot.’ And the light bulb went on and that’s pretty much when I resolved to do everything that I could to change marijuana laws.”

Shortly after this arrest, Saint-Maurice started organizing marijuana marches and “smoke-ins” around Montreal. He pursued this form of activism for almost six years until his lawyer suggested he might simply try getting elected and changing the law himself. He took the advice to heart and in 1997 founded the Bloc Pot, a Quebec provincial party. The Bloc Pot’s mandate is to have marijuana legalized. According to the party’s web site, one essential step in this process is legalizing marijuana for medical use, a goal that also addresses the party’s commitment to individuals’ “fundamental right to health.” With this in mind, in 1999 Saint-Maurice and two other Bloc Pot members opened the Compassion Club, at the time directly across the street from a police station.

Hazy laws

The Montreal Compassion Club – one of many similar organizations across Canada – falls into a legal gray area, just outside of Canada’s medicinal marijuana law. The current status of medical weed in Canada stems from the arrest of an epileptic man named Terrence Parker. In 1996, Parker was busted for having more than 70 marijuana plants and subsequently charged with possession and cultivation, among other things. Parker was no stranger to the police; he had been arrested and acquitted for possession several times before. For each acquittal, his defense rested on his claim that he needed to smoke marijuana to control his seizures.

After the 1996 charges were laid, Parker was determined to permanently free himself from future prosecution. He told the judge that, due to his condition, the drug charges violated his rights under the Canadian Charter. The defense worked. In 1997, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that, “forcing Parker to choose between his health and imprisonment violates his right to liberty and security of person.”

In response to the Parker ruling, the government passed legislation in 2001 that made medicinal marijuana licenses available to some chronically ill patients provided they prove that no other legal drug could treat their symptoms. To discourage licensed patients from purchasing black market weed, a $5-million contract was awarded to a Saskatoon-based company to grow the plant in an abandoned mine shaft in Manitoba. Patients who qualified for a license could receive marijuana in the mail, direct from Health Canada.

Since 2001, court challenges have seen Canada’s medical marijuana law undergo several revisions. Licensed users can now buy marijuana seeds from Health Canada and designate someone as a “primary care giver” to grow the drug for them. Even so, most marijuana activists believe the law to be flawed. In seven years, Health Canada has granted only 2,500 medicinal marijuana licenses. Some estimate the need is close to a million. Compassion Clubs, like the one Saint-Maurice runs, are willing to break the law to fulfill this need.

Not your average pothead

When I met Saint-Maurice for the first time, I must confess, I was somewhat disappointed. I figured that, for someone who smokes a lot of pot, he’d at least look the part: glazed eyes, hemp clothing, maybe a marijuana leaf or two tattooed in some highly visible location – a sort of French-Canadian Woody Harrelson. Alas, I got a Woody Allen: not a single tattooed leaf to be had. Indeed, with thinning brown hair, glasses, shirt, and jacket, Saint-Maurice looks like the average 39-year-old Quebecker.

But talking to Saint-Maurice one quickly realizes that he’s far from normal, even by activist standards. He’s something of a marijuana crusader. Not content to limit his cause to a provincial political party, he founded the federal Marijuana Party of Canada in 1999 and proceeded to travel the country waging weed war in elections. As the party’s leader he ran against the likes of former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day, Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, and former prime minister Paul Martin (he garnered 349 votes against Martin, finishing sixth behind the Green Party, slightly ahead of the Marxist-Leninists).

Doctor’s orders?

When discussing the Montreal Compassion Club, Saint-Maurice is surprisingly open. “The Compassion Club is illegal,” he says. “I mean, there are precedents in court, which make it pretty much impossible to prosecute. But according to the letter of the law, it’s still illegal.”

There are more than a dozen compassion clubs, cannabis clubs, and marijuana buyers’ clubs across Canada – Toronto alone has four – and all of them break the law. As Saint-Maurice explains, it doesn’t matter if his customers have a Health Canada license – there are still no legal provisions that allow for licensed medicinal marijuana users to buy from compassion clubs.

At the Montreal Club, Saint-Maurice and his employees play the role of Health Canada. Potential members present a doctor’s letter that diagnoses them with an illness, and the Club then decides if marijuana can help treat the symptoms. A prescription for marijuana is not required.

According to Saint-Maurice, when it comes to verifying a patient’s diagnosis letter the Compassion Club has higher standards than most pharmacies. “We call the doctor’s office and verify their license number,” he says. “We always ask for ID and we keep a record of everything patients buy.”

The Club’s web site cites more than 195 chronic conditions that have been treated with cannabis, and describes the symptoms the drug alleviates. Among other benefits, marijuana is known to relieve pain and nausea, reduce muscle spasticity, and decrease seizure frequency in epileptic patients. Thus, the drug can treat conditions ranging from AIDS and cancer to anxiety and writer’s cramp – for which this writer is now seriously considering soliciting a diagnosis.

The Club buys its marijuana from a variety of sources, including patients that have a Health Canada license and grow the drugs themselves. “They are not supposed to supply us,” Saint-Maurice says, “but they do.” Sometimes the Club will even buy weed from people who walk in off the street. “We have a certain expertise and we test it out,” he says. The Club owns a 60X microscope that they use to determine the quality of street weed. “The one question I ask [sellers] is that they are not involved with organized crime,” he says.

Taxes present another legal gray area for the Club: how does a business pay tax if the product it sells is illegal? They don’t. A few years ago a B.C. Compassion Club sued the government to make marijuana taxable, but the case was thrown out. “If five years down the road Revenue Canada comes after us,” he says, “I’ll say, ‘where the hell were you when this case wanted to be tried!’” Besides, Saint-Maurice believes that marijuana shouldn’t be taxed. “It’s a medicine,” he says. “All the revenue that we generate goes to help advance different legalization causes.”

In 2000, police tried to shut down Montreal’s Club; in a raid, they confiscated 66 grams of weed and slapped Saint-Maurice with a trafficking charge. Two years later, a Quebec judge decided that the charge should be dropped. He ruled that it was unconstitutional to let some people use medicinal marijuana, but then deny them an opportunity to get the drug. Three weeks after the ruling, with legal precedent on his side, Saint-Maurice reopened the Club.

“Everyone gets sick”

As we finish our drinks, Saint-Maurice arranges for Adam Greenblatt, who refers to himself as the store’s “horticultural consultant,” to show me around the Club. Upon entering, I’m immediately overwhelmed by the sweet smell of marijuana. To the left and right of the entrance, on the walls, hanging chalkboards quote the day’s specials. “Hammerhead” is selling for $10 a gram and, “M-39,” for $8 a gram. Fun names, for a serious business, but then again, they are selling pot.

The front of the store is separated from the back by a waist-high display case that features the Club’s products, which not only include straight-up weed, but hash, marijuana pills, and marijuana cookies. “We have a professional pastry chef that makes most of the cookies,” Greenblatt says, adding, “I make them sometimes.”

As we talk, Greenblatt reaches into a display case and pulls out a bottle containing a thick green liquid. “Tincture,” he says. “I make the tincture as well. It’s, like, marijuana soaked in alcohol. You just chop up a bunch of weed and soak it in alcohol for, like, three weeks. You leave it in the fridge and shake it up everyday.”

He unscrews the top of the bottle to reveal a medicine dropper hidden inside. “It’s in droplet form,” he says. “So you can add it to your coffee or your tea.”

Greenblatt takes some marijuana from a plastic container and places it into the middle of a metallic grinder that looks like a hockey puck when closed. He rotates the two ends of the puck in opposite directions, forcing the marijuana through steel forks within the puck to break it apart.

“The clientele we track varies,” he says. “You know, you have your poor, drug-abusing clients that have contracted hepatitis or HIV. And you’ve got your 50-year-old Westmount Jewish women,” he says, adding, “Everyone gets sick.”

Greenblatt knocks the now ground-up weed out of the hockey puck and starts to roll a joint, all the while explaining the differences between the strains of weed that the Club sells.

“If you have some serious, like, physical pain, we’ll probably recommend something along the Indica lines, for its analgesic action. Sativas, you’ll forget about pain, but it’s not taken away,” he says, throwing the now completed joint in his pocket.

Like Saint-Maurice, Greenblatt is quite open about the Club’s activities. “We’re actually engaged in civil disobedience, like, everyday working here,” he says. “We’re not following any law. We’re selling marijuana from a store. But we’ll win in court ultimately.”

Rolling with the punches

A week after our initial meeting I call Saint-Maurice; I had forgotten to write down the exact number of times he’s been arrested.

“Hold on,” he says, “I always forget the number.” I can hear him counting on the other end of the phone, presumably recalling times and places.

“Either nine or ten times,” he finally replies. “Yes, I think it’s nine times. But I’ve only been convicted five times.”

I point out that he is running almost a 50 per cent acquittal rate. “Yeah,” he says, “I guess that’s pretty good!”

These days, Saint-Maurice gets arrested less often, possibly because he has slightly toned down his activism. In 2004, he left the Marijuana Party and joined the federal Liberals. He’s now the president of the Liberal riding association for Laurier Sainte-Marie, where his Club is located. “Without naming names,” he says, “there are a lot of people in the Liberal party that enjoy marijuana.”

As for the future, Saint-Maurice believes that his fight with the Montreal Compassion Club will one day lead to a Canada where marijuana is legal. “Social change happens on the ground and then the lawmakers catch up,” he says. “Whether it’s gay marriage, gun control or abortion, society takes a position way before legislatures act on it. And I think that’s what’s happening with marijuana.”