Nunavut man facing pot charges launches Charter case over medical marijuana club
By Bob Weber, Canadian Press
IQALUIT, Nunavut — He calls himself a healer, not a dealer.
And despite spending last weekend in jail on drug charges, Ed DeVries is not about to shut what is almost certainly the most northerly - and perhaps the most popular - medical marijuana club in Canada.
"I couldn't stop this if I wanted to," says DeVries, a 52-year-old grandfather of four now facing four drug-related charges in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
He may be right.
The Qikiqtani Compassion Club, he says, distributes marijuana to 543 members, almost all of them in Iqaluit.
That would mean nearly eight per cent of the population of the government town is willing to sign a registration form and carry photo ID proclaiming reliance on the odd joint to relieve everything from arthritis pain and depression to drug dependence and the final pains of death.
And not only does DeVries insist that smoking pot could ease many of Nunavut's medical and social ills, he insists that roadblocks the territory erects to prevent people from doing so violate their Constitutional rights.
"The efforts of Mr. DeVries are made necessary by the impossibility of complying with the Marijuana Access Regulations in Nunavut," say court documents filed in DeVries' attempt to use the Charter of Rights to fight his possession charges.
DeVries began distributing marijuana to those who say they need it last June, after watching people pay street prices of more than $30 per gram for uncertain quality.
"They've been paying all this money for crap weed and it's an abuse of our elders," says DeVries, a former corrections officer, justice worker and Marijuana Party of Canada candidate.
He converted a storage room in his home into a marijuana dispensary, with a variety of strains available for $15 a gram, $7 for elders and free to anyone receiving palliative care.
Recipients had to convince him they needed it, usually by giving him a doctor's note describing their condition. Nobody could buy more than seven grams a day. Visits are limited to once daily.
By August, he had 78 registrants and 150 trying to get in. On Aug. 14, he was raided.
Police "took everything," DeVries recalls. "Virtually shut me down."
Last fall, he started up again in a new building - near, ironically, a notorious Iqaluit drug house. This time he registered his efforts as an official society through the Government of Nunavut as a group supplying a "herbal medicine."
The demand was there. DeVries says his clientele ranges from civil servants to recipients of social assistance to elders.
So, however, were the legal hoops.
Patients with a prescription are able to get legal marijuana, or get someone to grow it for them, but DeVries says none of his members could get a doctor to prescribe it. Eventually, he says, none even were willing to sign letters confirming a patient's symptoms.
"At this time we are not aware of any physician in Nunavut who is actively prescribing marijuana for medical purposes," says Dr. Patricia DeMaio, Chief of Staff at the Qikiqtani General Hospital.
The "Nunavut Government has no affiliation with any individual or organization for providing marijuana for medical purposes."
All DeVries can do now is ask patients to provide access to their own medical records.
He says he has refused membership to those who can't back up their claims of need and kicks anyone off the list found reselling. He doesn't grow his own marijuana and won't say where he gets his supply. He is also reluctant to talk about how much of the drug he moves.
His lawyer, Alison Crowe, says people in Nunavut who can benefit from marijuana are having their rights violated because the medical community won't provide the documentation the law requires. She wants those requirements removed, at least in Nunavut.
"The impugned regulations ... should be found to be of no force or effect with respect to the possession and distribution of medical marijuana in Nunavut," reads her court filing.
Both police and the Crown have declined to comment on the case while it is before the courts.
DeVries is convinced of marijuana's medical benefits, but he says it could relieve many of Iqaluit's psychic scars as well, reducing the high level of violence in the community. And he says marijuana use could reduce the harm caused by other substances, such as alcohol or painkillers such as Oxycontin.
"This is harm reduction," says DeVries, himself a former alcoholic. "What we need is a made-in-Nunavut harm reduction strategy."
DeVries is due back in court Feb. 15, when a judge is to determine a date for a pre-trial conference on the Charter arguments.
-By Bob Weber in Edmonton