The straight dope

Why advocates say marijuana should be legalized

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on April 28, 2012

In his Torbay home, Mike Dawe slides open an end-table drawer, pulls out a Mason jar and rolls a joint.

There are no additives like tobacco. The marijuana - weed or pot as it is most commonly called - is grown by Dawe with an ardent dedication to craftsmanship.

As Dawe, a rail-thin man who stands an inch shy of seven feet, takes The Telegram on a tour of the basement of the house he rents, he apologizes, saying the current plants are not his best crop.

Mike Dawe discusses obstacles to acquiring medicinal marijuana.

The basement rooms hold a selection of plants - some have been harvested - and an impressive system of lights specially made for indoor gardening.

Dawe began growing the marijuana after obtaining a licence as part of medical treatment. He provides for himself and is the designated grower for another patient.

He was pursuing botany studies before his conditioned worsened.

Dawe suffers from Marfan syndrome, which affects the connective tissue in many parts of the body. He has a stainless steel aortic valve and uses medical marijuana to relieve the excruciating pain and insomnia.

"I can still get around, so I figured I may as well help while I can," said Dawe, who used to get weed from a compassion club, and bought it illegally for a few years before that.

But while Dawe has a licence to grow, he also supports the legalization of marijuana for everyone, a movement that equates the criminalization of weed cultivation and possession to the 1920s Prohibition of alcohol.

For Dawe and other medical marijuana patients, it's neither simple nor cheap to source the marijuana. And some days, his condition makes the labour of tending the crop - 14 hour days at certain crucial steps - hard to endure.

Dawe runs the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Marijuana Society, and says it's also difficult to get a doctor to sign off - some think they need a special licence to prescribe medical marijuana. Others are afraid their practices will be investigated.

Once a doctor is found, though, there are detailed forms to fill out and it takes eight to 10 weeks to get approval from Health Canada, he said.

Medical marijuana is not covered by MCP, nor private medical insurance, Dawe added.

And for the grower, there is the wait for the first crop to reach cultivation stage, and the requirement to buy from Health Canada in the meantime.

At $150 for a 30-gram package plus tax, it's unaffordable, said Dawe, who is licensed for the use of 15 grams a day.

He also fears there will be a future shift away from allowing patients to grow their own.

"No way I could afford that. I am a disability patient. I get enough money to pay rent and some of my bills and that's it," he said.

"I get phone calls about when my next bit of power is going to get cut off or when my phone is going to get cut off and I just have to find a way to pay it. ... We're handed a piece of paper saying, 'It's legal, go figure it out.'"

He gets a $600 electrical bill subsidy through disability, but the actual cost ranges from $800 a month in the summer to $1,200 in winter - he uses 16,000 watts of power for 98 plants.

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Another medical marijuana user, a native of Torbay now living in Ontario, said the Health Canada supplied medical marijuana is of poor quality.

Clayton, who only wanted his first name used, suffered two debilitating accidents - one in which he fell from a roof and landed on his head - and uses a vaporizer or makes butter from the pot he grows. He said he never gets stoned and can function, something prescribed OxyContin robbed him of for years.

"I didn't move through the door. I didn't do nothing," he said, adding it took him years to find a doctor to prescribe the marijuana, whereas physicians were eager to prescribe OxyContin and other opiates.

Now, not only does the weed allow him quality of life, growing the plants has given him a hobby of sorts.

"I don't want chemicals in it. I want it to be perfect," he said.

He smoked it in the home of his senior citizen parents in Torbay this winter.

"They'd rather see me do that than be the way I was on OxyContin," said Clayton, who used pot illegally in his youth and favours it being legalized altogether if it is controlled by the government the same way alcohol sales are.

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Family members are supportive of Dawe, too. The police don't hassle him beyond once showing up to make sure he had the right number of plants, but he sometimes hears people snicker and whisper in public, referring to him as a "stoner."

He moves in three weeks' time, but has secured another rental in Conception Bay South from a medical marijuana user. Finding someone to rent to a pot grower is tricky.

Even worse is finding a place to take his dog, Marley - named after late reggae legend Bob Marley, of course - and cat, Franklin.

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The anti-weed-prohibition movement has been gathering steam lately and catching headlines around the country, with advocates arguing marijuana's health benefits and safety as a soft drug.

And now that the federal government has rolled out its omnibus crime bill, there are concerns about people getting mandatory minimum sentences and clogging up jails for minor cannabis-related offences.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy says it's "very weird" that Canada is taking a tougher line on marijuana when governments across the globe are reconsidering the war on drugs.

And while former high-profile U.S. federal prosecutor John McKay stands behind having had Canada's "Prince of Pot" arrested, indicted and ultimately sentenced to five years in an American prison, he has come out in favour of legalizing it, according to media reports. It was reported by The Canadian Press in the lead-up to the annual 4-20 celebration - a counterculture holiday where marijuana users gather to smoke weed.

McKay, who now teaches at a Seattle, Wa. university, said Canada's policy is out of step internationally.

Marc Emery went to prison in 2010 for selling marijuana seeds by mail to U.S. customers.

In 2003, a St. John's rally - part of the Cannabis Culture publisher's cross-Canada tour - drew the largest crowd in the country, at more than 200 people. About the same number turned out for his farewell tour in 2009.

This month, roughly 200 people gathered in Bannerman Park for the annual 4-20 celebration.

Dawe, who's in his 30s, no longer attends the rallies much and laments it's the young people who are mostly showing up at public events. He said Emery is the rock star of the marijuana community, and so naturally would have been a big draw.

"Young people know the message. They've heard these points a million times. You need the multitude of people 30 years and up that smoke marijuana - most of them will just not admit it," he said.

"That's who needs to hear it and get out there and talk about it. But they won't until they stop worrying about losing their jobs and society says you can't fire this mass amount of people or society shuts down. (There's) only a handful that will really say it, which is sad."

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Arron Chalker, 20, is among those who publicly advocate for legalization. But he doesn't describes himself as a pothead.

He had his first joint around age 17, and says he only smokes it occasionally.

"I would say it wasn't heavy, never heavy, never very habitual," he said.

Chalker mainly advocates legalization because of the amount of money it would save the legal system, and the taxes it could generate.

"If we were to cut out prohibition and stop spending it on the (policing, prosecution and incarceration) ... we would have $5.9 billion to distribute elsewhere," he said, citing anti-prohibition articles.

Chalker became interested in the movement as he left high school and began searching out documentaries and research.

"While searching for answers, I was directed towards this miracle plant. Some people call it the tree of life," he said.

While staunchly Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in power, neither Chalker nor Dawe expect weed to be legalized. But they say it eventually will be.

Dawe discounts the argument that drug gangs would not be affected by the loss of the marijuana trade since they also market harder drugs like cocaine and heroine. They will still be around, Dawe said, but they will take a large hit if pot was legalized and regulated.

"Tonnes of weed don't come from people like me. That comes from some pretty bad people," he said.

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Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Chief Robert Johnston cautioned against the broad statement that marijuana is safe to use.

"People say marijuana use is harmless. I have seen it from a lot of young people who use it and have made decisions that have altered their life," Johnston told The Telegram.

"I have seen first hand the impacts that illegal drugs have in general. Even though it's a soft drug, when they are under the influence of a drug sometimes your inhibitions are down. You make decisions that you have to pay for for the rest of your life."

Johnston said it's up to the federal government to decide laws and whether or not marijuana remains illegal.

"Elected officials got to make that determination. We'll support them and provide them whatever information they want. But clearly there is a great deal of profit made by organized crime. Any abuse of any drugs, you know, is going to have an impact on youth," he said.

He, too, noted that organized crime does not rely solely on marijuana sales.

"Not only are they selling marijuana, they are selling cocaine, they're selling oxycodone, they're selling other things, so they have sort of branched out," Johnston said.

"Some of the critics are saying marijuana prosecution is taking up a great deal of the RNC's or RCMP's time. ... If you took marijuana out of the equation, those illegal crime groups are going to sell something else.

"I am not a politician. I am a public servant - the chief of police - and I am committed to upholding the laws, whatever they may be. ... My ultimate goal is to make sure we have healthy, safe communities."

bsweet@thetelegram.com with files from The Canadian Press

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