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Legal green zone

Unravelling the complications of growing medical marijuana

Charles Bilodeau has a green thumb. Each day, he visits his grow-op to nurse his 65 cannabis plants – the number that he’s limited to by the Canadian government. “It’s like taking care of babies. You need to go every day to make sure that they’re okay, to feed them,” he says, adding, “It’s all about really understanding the plant.”

Through the Health Canada program, Bilodeau officially supplies three patients with marijuana for medical relief – which he grows for them absolutely free of charge. Off the books, to support the costs of growing, he sells his surplus to the Montreal Compassion Club, where he also works as a manager. The club dispenses medical marijuana to members who demonstrate a legitimate medical need, but haven’t got a doctor’s prescription and aren’t part of the government program.

“One of the ways to get quality marijuana in the Compassion Centre is relying on surpluses from people that have legal Health Canada permits. That part is still considered illegal, but we’re fighting strong because we believe there is no sense in throwing the cannabis away,” asserts Bilodeau.

Whether you are growing for yourself or for someone else with a medical need, the government limits the number of plants and grams of pot allowed. “There are ways to stay within your limits and still have a surplus,” Bilodeau points out. “There is no true value to a number of plants because you can have a super big plant or you can make many small plants. If the person is allowed 300 grams a month, you can produce 600 grams a month: you produce 300 grams every two weeks, which is never really illegal because you’re allowed to have 300 grams.”

The legal situation around medical marijuana is about as sticky as sticky green weed – even law enforcement officials find it baffling. The recent history of its partial legalization has been a chain reaction of reluctant allowances, which have resulted in unequal access and inconsistent risks, leaving many in a legal grey zone. Under the current system, Bilodeau explains that different doctors’ perceptions of marijuana use make it completely legal for some while it remains restricted for others. Permission for medical cannabis is granted on an individual basis: to buy it from the government through the Health Canada program, a patient’s doctor needs to sign off. To apply for a permit to grow, you also need a patient with a doctor’s signature. “Right off the bat, nine out of 10 doctors won’t sign the forms because they want nothing to do with marijuana – to them it’s something that’s evil,” Bilodeau says.

That’s where the compassion clubs come in. “[The Montreal Compassion Club’s] mission when we started in 1999 was to facilitate access to people who need it but who don’t have access to it legally,” said Bilodeau. Over the past decade and a half, dozens of similar non-profit community-based initiatives have opened across Canada.

In spite of these clubs’ efforts, Bilodeau notes that the demand for medical marijuana still exceeds the supply. Over 90 per cent of Canadians who use medical marijuana buy it from compassion clubs, according to the CBC. A Canadian AIDS Society report found that less than two per cent of medical users get their supply through the government program.

Many medical users resort to buying on the street. They have to break the law while stomaching higher prices and inconsistent quality. “It’s expensive, when you think of the black market, to get $10 of weed which is probably schwag and they don’t know what it is. Ten bucks a day: that’s like $3000 or $4000 a year,” explains Bilodeau.

The current system leaves growers without Health Canada permits especially vulnerable. “A lot of [the compassion centres’] growers…produce only for medical use but they don’t have the permits to protect themselves, so they’re the most at risk in the whole operation,” explains Bilodeau. “At the club where we dispense the marijuana…we’ve already gone to court and proven there is a medical demand for marijuana: we have that protecting us. And then the members, on an individual level, they have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that permits them to use marijuana for medical use.”

The complicated genealogy of these protections begins in 1996 when Terry Parker, an epileptic man who used marijuana to control his seizures, was arrested for possession. The next year, the judge ruled that the “security of a person” in the Canadian charter defended Parker’s right to smoke pot. “People were allowed to possess [marijuana] but weren’t allowed to buy it, so the government was not offering the actual medicine that it was allowing,” explains Bilodeau.

Across Canada, compassion clubs cropped up to provide a product to which the government had recognized sick Canadians had an inherent right but still refused to supply. The first clubs opened in Victoria, Vancouver, and Toronto in 1996.

A year after opening, the Montreal Club was busted in 2000 – nationwide, clubs were being taken to court around the same time. After a long-winded procedure, charges against the Montreal club were dismissed in 2002 and the club reopened. The judge ruled that people who use the drug as medicine need a safe and legal place to acquire it. The laws that got them in trouble in the first place, though, haven’t changed.

The complications posed by the compassion clubs made it clear that the government needed to define on what terms medical marijuana was legal and how it would be supplied. In 2001, the Medical Marijuana Access Regulations were created, which lists the conditions and symptoms that warrant access to marijuana – weight loss and nausea from cancer, severe pain from arthritis, and muscle spasms from multiple sclerosis all appear on the list. But it wasn’t until two years later that the government finally supplied the drug, in the form of either dried weed or seeds, to authorized users. Medical users have to pay for government pot out of their own pocket.

“The marijuana that the government offers is only one type of cannabis that works on one type of symptoms,” says Bilodeau. “It’s a really basic sativa strain. If it doesn’t work for you then you’re pretty much screwed,” Bilodeau says. Compassion clubs offer their members a variety of strains – the main argument for their continued existence in spite of the government program.

Before working at the club, Bilodeau, like most of us, thought, “You get stoned, you get stoned.” But he explains that there are different strains of cannabis that have different effects on the body: “Some people have arthritis; other people have nausea from chemo for cancer, and they don’t want to use the same type of cannabis.” The main distinction is that sativa strains provide more of an energetic and cerebral high while indicia strains provide more of a sleepy, whole body high. Bilodeau grows three different strains for his patients.

“We are creating the standard [for medical marijuana] with the compassion centres. It’s up to us to make something better because the government is not helping,” says Bilodeau, explaining that right now, there are no inspections or standards on medical pot or grow-ops.

“We’re working on opening a co-op of growers,” explains Bilodeau. “We’d inspect grow-ops and set a medical standard for growing marijuana. A grower would have to make sure he uses only natural products, no pesticides.”

For some people, marijuana is the only medicine that works. It has fewer side effects than many prescription medications, and it complements a more holistic view of health. “People don’t see it as a burden. It’s therapeutic for people to have a ritual, to roll their joint, to have fun with their medication,” says Bilodeau.

Before prohibition in the ’30s and ’40s, cannabis- and opiate-based medicine was common – parents even gave it to their children. “We’ve forgotten it was once legal, we’ve been living for so long in this prohibition,” says Bilodeau, adding that often people say, “‘We used [marijuana] to have fun; we didn’t even think of it as being medical.’ Then you speak to their parents or grandparents and they used to use it medically.”

The medical industry’s profit motives have played a role in the cultural shift toward synthetic medicines. “The only way to get a patent on a product is if you can synthesize the molecule. Obviously, you can’t synthesize a plant. Since God created it, no one can own it,” says Bilodeau. “That was a big threat for pharmaceutical companies.” Case in point, the medical ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, has been synthetically created and patented – it’s sold as Dronabinol or Marinol, which costs hundreds of dollars per month to use. Imagine the loss for these companies if the people using their product could just grow the same thing in their backyard.

Pharmaceutical companies aren’t the only ones threatened by cannabis, Bilodeau explains: “Marijuana comes from the same plant as hemp. Hemp was pushed to be illegal, which was really absurd because there’s no psychoactive value. But it was a big threat to the oil companies because from hemp fibres you can make clothing; the first Ford car was made with hemp plastics.”

In February 1937, Popular Mechanics Magazine predicted that hemp would be the world’s first “Billion Dollar Crop” that would support thousands of jobs and provide a vast array of consumer products, from dynamite to plastics. The same year, the United States passed legislation that levied a tax and added regulation to anyone who dealt commercially with hemp or marijuana. Also that year, DuPont Plastics received two patents that allowed them to replace hemp plastics with synthetic varieties.

The proponents of this legislation preyed on existing prejudices. Bilodeau explains that they would associate marijuana with black and Mexican Americans, saying that it drove these racial groups to crime and violence. He points the “the whole Reefer Madness-syndrome,” noting the 1936 propaganda film.

The war on drugs is still a big business. The Harper government’s Bill C-15 reminds us that laws and regulations on drugs rarely lead to harm reduction or ensure public safety. The bill proposed a mandatory minimum sentence of six months for any drug-related charge, even for the possession of one cannabis plant. It targeted marijuana more than hard drugs, and drug production rather than distribution. In short, it targeted people who grow pot, rather than the gangs who deal it.

“I have trouble trying to find the logic behind the Harper government,” says Bilodeau. He speculates that Harper plans to privatize prisons, creating a system where the more people there are in jail, the more the government profits.

A silver-lining to Parliament’s proroguement, however, is that Bill C-15 was dropped. Bilodeau hopes that the momentum behind medical marijuana will ensure it won’t be brought to the floor again: “There are so many permits being issued every day; there’s so many more clubs opening up across Canada that are selling marijuana. And every day that we’re open there’s new members. The cause becomes bigger and the fight is harder for them to win.”

Bilodeau has no doubts that the legalization of medical marijuana will lead to the drug’s full legalization: “Marijuana is marijuana, whether it’s medical marijuana or recreational marijuana. It’s the same God damn plant.” Even though in many ways it’s the same fight against prohibition, Bilodeau regrets that some people see medical marijuana as just an excuse to legalize recreational marijuana.

Outside of Canada, there are indications that prohibition is on its way out. President Barack Obama has relaxed the enforcement of medical marijuana and stopped federal raids of medical marijuana dispensaries in California. These dispensaries are legal under the state’s laws but not permitted by federal regulations.

Unfortunately, there are international pressures to reign in Canada’s growing tolerance toward pot. A U.N. watchdog is currently reviewing the national medical marijuana program, and the Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board has suggested that it violates international treaty rules.

Despite the pressure to uphold zero-tolerance policies, Quebec is in the position to play a leading role in cannabis legalization within Canada. Bilodeau notes that our province’s unique Charter of Rights could be useful in promoting legalization across the nation. The Quebec Charter bars the discrimination against the use of any means to palliate a handicap and takes the onus off of individuals to prove their sickness if they are using marijuana medically. “We are trying to push our own Charter here. And if we legalize it here, then it will create a domino effect across Canada,” he predicts.

“This is my life, my business, and what I’m truly going to be doing for the rest of my life,” says Bilodeau. When it comes to the future of medical marijuana in Canada, he’s optimistic: “It’s not absurd to think that one day I’ll be able to be totally open about everything I do.”

This article has been amended from the original version published in print on March 15, 2010.