Ottawa won't prosecute medical marijuana activists

January 27, 2004

Brian Laghi, Globe and Mail

Ottawa — Citizen groups that provide medicinal marijuana to the chronically-ill are rejoicing today amid news that Ottawa will not proceed with trafficking charges laid against two men operating a well-known Toronto care centre.

The Globe and Mail has learned that the federal government will refrain from pursuing a prosecution against two men who operated a Toronto organization whose workers were devoted to dispensing cannabis to patients suffering from persistent illnesses like AIDS and other ailments.

The men's preliminary hearing was to have started today.

'This is exciting,' said Warren Hitzig, one of two individuals charged with a number of drug-related offenses.

'By not convicting me, you're basically opening the door for others to operate.'

Mr. Hitzig, 27, and a colleague, Zach Naftolin, were charged in 2002 after the Toronto Compassion Centre they helped to operate was robbed and investigating police later found large quantities of marijuana on the premises.

Mr. Hitzig said he was informed last week that the charges would not go ahead. However, sources were unclear whether they would be withdrawn or stayed. A stayed charged means police have the right to proceed for up to a year.

He said many other such clubs across had been concerned they would be the next ones to face charges, and are encouraged now that they will be able to operate without that fear.

'I think that's the message, but they were also really scared. They don't want to go through the same thing that I did,' he said. He said that recently-established regulations that allow chronically-ill Canadians to access the drug are very onerous, necessitating the need for his organization and others like it. Mr. Hitzig and Mr. Naftolin no longer run the club, which has since begun operating in another location.

'The government has to do something. It's popping up all over the world,' he said. 'Health Canada get your act together.'

The operator of a Vancouver centre said the decision may encourage others to provide the service.

'I think it's another note of recognition of the service we are providing,' said Hilary Black, co-director of the B.C. Compassion Club Society. Ms. Black, whose club currently provides marijuana to 2,800 individuals, said her organization regularly receives inquiries from individuals wanting to set up clubs but who are concerned about whether it's safe to do so.

Federal justice officials would not comment on the matter.

The stay was ordered after Justice Minister Irwin Cotler received a letter from Toronto lawyer Alan Young asking that the prosecution be reviewed.

In his letter, Mr. Young noted that the centre 'operated in an open and transparent manner' and that, between 1999 and 2002, there had been numerous police officers who investigated the centre and determined that the laying of criminal charges was not warranted.

'I am asking that you intervene to stay proceedings because the continuation of this prosecution reflects poorly on the integrity of your department,' he wrote.

By 2002, the centre was servicing over 1,200 individuals who had letters from their physicians saying they required the drug.

The charges were laid after Mr. Hitzig, who acted as director of the centre, was party to a lawsuit alleging the country's marijuana access regulations were too restrictive. It argued that Ottawa had not made available a lawful source of marijuana available despite the regulations saying it would be made available to those who qualified.

The lawsuit requested that the courts compel Ottawa to distribute marijuana that was being grown under a federal contract. Eventually, the federal government did so, although there are still many complaints about the ease with which individuals can access it.

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