Remembering Cannabis Heroes

Sandra Petite

By Sam Mellace (from The Great Cannabis Conspiracy)

 Sam Mellace and Sandra Petite at the Global Cannabis March, 2016

Sam Mellace and Sandra Petite at the Global Cannabis March, 2016

Sandra grew up in a small town in rural Ontario. She was raised by her grandparents — resilient Cape Bretoners of Irish descent — because, as she tells it, “my parents were total fuck-ups.” 

Sandra was born a male, in the traditional biological sense of gender, but from an early age she understood that her true nature lay at the other end of the gender spectrum. This creeping certainty about herself led to a confused and introverted childhood. However, she excelled in school, especially in science, and after graduating from high school she embarked on a career as an aerospace machinist in Kitchener, earning $20 per hour in a stable union job — great work during the troubled economic times of the late 1980s. 

As she came of age, Sandra could no longer ignore the truth inside her. Being unable to live her life as a woman induced depression and isolation from her friends and family. Growing desperate, she began to research Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS). In the regressive early 1990s, the Province of Ontario required that patients seeking SRS first had to be admitted to the Clarke Institute in Toronto, which offered a kind of “conversion therapy.” Essentially it was a lengthy psychiatric evaluation process, during which the doctors tried to convince Sandra to remain in her birth or “cis” gender. The therapy included an aggressive regimen of Prozac. Only by remaining steadfast in her desire to complete her gender transformation did Sandra finally win approval, in 1998, for SRS. Finally becoming a woman came at a terrible cost, not only because of the traumatic psychiatric experience, but also to her family and career. In 1994, she was fired from her job — what today would be a clear case of transgender discrimination — just for enrolling at the Clarke Institute. And she found comfort neither in her friends nor her family. 

“After my surgery,” she says, “I moved back to Kitchener, hoping to reconnect with old friends. But it was hard — and being a trans person, I was not really accepted. [My family and friends] totally isolated me. They were religious. They had their phobias — homophobia, transphobia, racism. And I realized that in my youth I had held similar beliefs, not knowing any better.” Though finally living in her true gender identity, Sandra found no respite from depression, and she also couldn’t find a job, though she still possessed the same skills as she had when she’d lived as a man. “You don’t know oppression until you’ve been turned down from a job solely because of your orientation. Now I know that.” 

Then something else happened to Sandra. She began to feel a creeping, intense pain all over her body. It felt as though her skeleton itself was undergoing its own transformation, bending and breaking against the nature of her body. She felt the pain in her joints — like arthritis — but also in her bones and muscles. It came in waves — there were good days and bad, moments of pure terror and moments of blessed relief. But it did not stop. In 2000, after two years seeking medical opinions and two years living on welfare, practically homeless, after her SRS, Sandra was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. It’s a syndrome that causes chronic muscular-skeletal pain, as well as other symptoms including insomnia, tension headaches, digestive abnormalities, and chronic fatigue. Though not fatal, it is excruciating and debilitating to endure, and there is no cure. In fact, there is little medical science can say for certain about what happens to a person suffering from fibromyalgia. According to the Mayo Clinic, “researchers believe that fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way your brain processes pain signals.” In other words, there is a miscommunication between the body, which is not experiencing any physical trauma, and the brain, which is nevertheless telling the body that something is wrong, and sending pain signals through the nervous system in response. Scientists also assume that, while fibromyalgia may be partially a factor of genetic conditions, it’s also more prevalent in people who have recently undergone extreme surgery, and people suffering from extreme stress. Though it affects less than 3 percent of the general population, it is seven times more likely to occur in women than men. It is possible, though medically indeterminate, that fibromyalgia was a byproduct of Sandra’s transformation. Doctors prescribed her all manners of painkillers, including opioids like oxycodone. But Sandra soon found better relief elsewhere — cannabis

“I was 16 the first time I tried marijuana,” she remembers. “The strain was called Red Panama, and it was full of seeds. In those days, we never knew what we got, because it was all black market, and probably grown with pesticides. But we just wanted to get high.” Sandra’s early cannabis education was not much different from the experience of countless others — most people are uneducated about cannabis, and just have to figure it out for themselves. “I remember one time [my friends and I] found a bunch of marijuana plants growing on Chicopee Hill [a popular ski resort in southern Ontario]. We thought — wow! And we smoked it. What we didn’t know was the plants were all male, not potent at all. But we convinced ourselves it was a great high!” Sandra drifted away from cannabis as she got older — “I was the kind of kid who was skeptical about trying drugs” — but those innocent, youthful experiments stayed with her. She had a lot of stomach problems as a child, and she remembered that, after smoking marijuana with friends, her stomach felt better. That simple memory was the catalyst for her decision to try cannabis again, after her fibromyalgia diagnosis. The environment hadn’t changed very much in 20 years — she still had to get her weed from drug dealers on the black market, and there was no doctor or health care practitioner she could turn to for advice. To any ignorant observer, Sandra might have cut the profile of a “druggie” — someone addicted to marijuana on the phony premise of having experienced personal trauma and some made-up-sounding “disease” like fibromyalgia. A hopeless junkie whose problems were “all in her head.” 

Sandra was a courageous pioneer, someone who lived her life in the truest sense, and who listened to the confusing, gobbledygook advice from the medical establishment and said, “Maybe there’s a better way.” For the past 17 years, through even more trauma and pain, Sandra has continued to relieve her fibromyalgia and depression with cannabis, and nothing else…

 Cannabis activists Sandra Petite,  Sam Mellace , and Michael J. Kaer

Cannabis activists Sandra Petite, Sam Mellace, and Michael J. Kaer

In 2001, Sandra was enduring the toughest stretch of her life; she’d lost her job and her friends and had been evicted from her Kitchener apartment. She was alone, in her mid-forties, and using alcohol and prescription drugs to console herself. Desperate for change, and inspired by the Jim Wakeford story, she decided to move to Toronto and quickly sought out the dispensary scene in the city’s LGBTQ community. She began volunteering at an organization called CALM (Cannabis as Living Medicine) in the city’s downtown east side. CALM had been around since the mid-nineties, providing cannabis for people living with HIV/AIDS, cancer, PTSD, and other traumas. “I hadn’t had a community of friends for over seven years,” she says of the time she was undergoing her transformation. “And the people of CALM became my community. We were each other’s family.” 

In 2001, CALM was one of only two places in Canada’s largest city where patients could obtain cannabis, and it was set up as a non-profit compassion centre to help people understand and try cannabis safely. Everything Sandra and her team knew about cannabis therapy they learned from patients. “We advised them based on their diag- nosis and symptoms, then they would go home and try it, and then report back how they felt, what they liked and didn’t like. And that’s how we would learn.” In the absence of medical research and clinical evidence, Sandra did the most important thing any health-care practitioner should do: She listened. “People would come to us crying, in so much pain and despair, feeling hopeless. These were not people just looking to get high, which is what the skeptics always thought.” The CALM community included the typically marginalized communities in the city — the homeless, the LGBTQ, the working poor — as well as a number of psychiatric patients who were referred by mental-health centres for their own clinical trials. But there were middle class people as well. “We had social workers, nurses and doctors, lawyers, judges, city workers, even police officers.” One of Sandra’s favourite memories is when people would come to CALM wearing disguises, hoping to remain anonymous. “One doctor who regularly came wearing a disguise told me she wasn’t worried as much about her own patients recognizing her as she was about other doctors recognizing her. In secret they could be pro-cannabis, but outwardly they couldn’t be. It was the same with police officers. To this day I keep their identities secret.” 

What does it say about our systems of health care and law enforcement if the very people whose job it is to heal us and enforce the law are prevented from being honest about it? “You can’t really blame the physicians,” Sandra says, and I agree. “There’s been no medical training about cannabis for a hundred years. The knowledge has been eroded.” She explains that CALM developed a brilliant plan to sidestep skeptical doctors. “Normally, when a patient asked me to contact their doctor to sign off on the prescription, that doctor would say no, or even hang up on me.” So Sandra would have another doctor, one who was open- minded about cannabis and sympathetic to CALM’s mission, submit an “authorization to release” the patient’s medical records from the anti-cannabis doctor. And based on those records, the pro-cannabis doctor could make the prescription. “It was risky,” she says, “but it worked for patients. And everything we were doing back then existed in a grey area anyway.” It was similar with police and lawyers; those individuals who were pro-cannabis helped advise the organization how to keep its books and records in good order. It was simply ironic that in doing so, for a good cause, they were in violation of the very drug laws they were meant to enforce. 

The cannabis at CALM mostly came from the so-called grey market — growers who might not be completely legal but weren’t part of organized crime, including what we might now call artisanal cannabis growers who had been experimenting with medicinal strains and organic-growing methods for decades. In other words, people like me (though I wasn’t a part of CALM). “Almost no one used the Prairie Plant stuff,” Sandra says. She tried PPS’s Mine Kush once. “It came in a silver vacuum-sealed bag, and it looked like it had been chopped up in a wood chipper.” And when she smoked it, “it gave me a terrible head- ache.” At CALM, the options weren’t much better, but at least there was a menu of strains. 

CALM kept all of its confidential patient records off-site in a safe, to protect against raids. Without trust, the entire operation would have collapsed. “Community members were free to talk with one another about their diseases and treatments,” Sandra says, “but we kept their identities and treatments private.” Even though CALM was providing an essential service to patients who were licensed by Health Canada under the MMAR to access cannabis, they were always at risk of persecution. And one day, in March 2010, it came without warning. A swarm of plainclothes Toronto police officers raided CALM in the middle of the afternoon, arresting Sandra and eight other workers. They confiscated more than 18 kilos of cannabis as well as all of the organization’s cash. Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair never provided a reason why his force suddenly targeted a compassion clinic that had been operating for 14 years, except that they were “responding to complaints.” Perhaps faced with a federal mandate to get tougher on drug crime — the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper was then building a case for a new comprehensive drug and crime law — Toronto police fell back on the old and easy habit of targeting cannabis patients. The CALM raid provided police with statistics, while for Sandra and her colleagues, it left them with a lifelong trauma. For CALM’s 2,500 patients, the police raid returned them once again to a state of fear and uncertainty. “When you traumatize people,” Sandra says, “you are denying their humanity.” That’s what happened on that cold March day in 2010. 

The nine people arrested that day have become known as the “CALM 9.” None were convicted of any crime, but the day still haunts them. “I was traumatized by the police,” Sandra says. For most people, interac- tions with law enforcement are rarely the cause of stress. When you see those flashing red and blue lights in your rearview mirror, your pulse quickens. Maybe your hands become clammy, your mouth dry. You feel a sense of guilt, but it passes as soon as you accept your fate and your $100 speeding ticket. For Black Americans and Indigenous Canadians, as countless studies and media reports have shown, encounters with law enforcement are rife with discrimination, abuse, and even lethal force. But imagine a transgender woman, living on welfare, not only using but also prescribing a so-called dangerous and illegal drug, caught up in a police dragnet. What do you imagine that police interaction is like? 

 Sam's book, " The Great Cannabis Conspiracy ," is now available for pre-order! 

Sam's book, "The Great Cannabis Conspiracy," is now available for pre-order! 

After spending half the night in a cold jail cell without food, water, or blankets, Sandra was released at three in the morning. To this day, she still has a criminal record, and even though it’s a non-conviction record, she can’t get a job. After the raid, Sandra went back to school to get her certificate in physio and occupational therapy, but with a criminal record, she’s forbidden from working with children, seniors, and vulnerable communities. She’s thought about applying for an official pardon, but “it now costs over $600 to apply, and there’s certainly no guarantee I’ll get it.” She’s still eligible to use cannabis to treat her fibromyalgia and depression. She still believes in the treatment that helped her beat alcohol and prescription opioids. “But now I’m a 61-year-old woman who has to get her medicine on the streets, like a drug user. Organized crime just feeds on people like me.” 

Still, despite all that has happened, and even though she’s moved on from CALM (which has reopened, though more clandestinely), Sandra is proud of what she and her community accomplished. “The law is black and white,” she reminds me, “but so is justice. If a law is unjust, we have a moral duty to stand up to that law. At CALM, we did that. And I want young people today to be proud of what we did, in spite of all the obstacles.”