SMOKE RINGS IN PARLIAMENT AND BAGGAGE FULL OF WEED
DR. SAM MELLACE
FROM THE GREAT CANNABIS CONSPIRACY
There’s an old saying that goes something like this: There are two things in this world that you never want to let people see how you make: laws and sausages.
It’s a cute little cliché, usually spoken when someone is commenting on the distasteful moral and ethical compromises that seem to be a part of our everyday political processes. But the comparison has never really sat well with me. As an Italian — and as a former prison chef — I’m intimately familiar with how sausages are made. I wouldn’t deny the fact that what goes into a sausage is understandably unappetizing to some people, especially in this modern era when our industrial food production seems so far removed from what’s on our dinner tables. Making a sausage involves pushing scraps of animal flesh, along with herbs and spices, through a metal grinder and into a casing comprised of intestinal tissue that may or may not be from the same animal as the meat it contains. The process involves death, adulteration, transformation, attention to health and safety, and finally nourishment and satisfaction. Despite the impurity of the process, the result that ends up on our plates, after a good flame broil, is something delicious and succulent and worth the effort (and perhaps the moral compromise) to make it. That is certainly not the case with laws.
THE SAUSAGE GRINDER OF THE CANADIAN LEGISLATIVE SYSTEM IS PARLIAMENT HILL, IN OTTAWA.
There, in a gilded chamber of self-evident grandeur, through marble hallways and awesome limestone arches, underneath cascades of linen and multi-coloured prisms of stain-glassed windows, sits the House of Commons. This is the seat of ultimate power, where over 300 elected representatives from across the country debate and enshrine the laws that govern what we do, how we behave, what is fair, and how we must live with the consequences of our actions. One autumn day in 2010, with the frustration of the MMAR, Health Canada, and the Prairie Plant catastrophe fresh in my mind, I decided to pay a visit to the House of Commons — not just to witness the sausage being made, but also to send a message to the makers. And I wasn’t alone. With me that day were my brave and resolute wife, several of my fellow licensed patients, and half a gram of the finest organic BC Bud from my latest farm crop — rolled up in a neat little joint and tucked inside my wife’s bra strap.
Just gaining admittance to the House of Commons requires passing through three levels of security and then ascending a cold marble stair- case to arrive at the Gallery, where up to 500 ordinary citizens at a time can observe Parliament in action. That October day, my friends and I cleared security without incident and took our seats in the Gallery. My wife passed me the joint from underneath her blouse and took a seat in the front row — she wanted to have the best view of the floor, where Canada’s Members of Parliament were going through the rote motions of Question Period. I sat in a more discrete location, three rows from the top, with my friend Ray on the aisle. There was a field trip of eighth graders nearby, and I waited for about an hour for them to leave — I had no interest in involving children in my action.
Finally, right about the time the clock over the Speaker of the House’s head showed “3:00 pm,” it was time to light up. Waiting out the afternoon had made me anxious, and I found myself questioning my own resolve — could I really go through with this? I pulled a match and a striker from where they were hidden in my underwear and fiddled with them for a few nervous moments. Searching for courage, my mind rested on the face of my friend Les. He’d been left crippled by a tragic work accident a few years earlier, which had confined him to a wheel- chair, suffering from chronic neuropathic pain. His paltry disability insurance had left him on the verge of homelessness. I’d helped him get his MMAR license and counseled him on strains and dosing, since his doctor didn’t have any information about cannabis. Health Canada approved Les to grow 15 plants for his personal medicinal use. Earlier that year, I’d helped him submit his license renewal to Health Canada about 12 weeks before it was set to expire. But after 12 weeks, the renewal hadn’t come, and thus Les was now without a license, which essentially meant that Health Canada — his government — had forced him to become a criminal.
As fate would have it, a few weeks later, police raided Les’ apartment and arrested him under the Controlled Substances Act on charges of possession with intent to traffic. He had only six plants growing at the time. The cops also arrested his 82-year-old landlord, who had given Les explicit permission to grow his legal medicine in the apartment. With some friends and a good lawyer, I helped get Les out on bail, and the charges were eventually dropped. Still, the indignity of the whole affair made our blood boil. Never again, I had said to myself years before, when my father beat my poor crippled mother nearly unconscious in our garden. Never again would I allow those who are brutal and strong prey upon the innocent and weak. This time, instead of a shovel, I had a better weapon — and a non-violent one.
I sat up straight in my chair in the House of Commons Gallery, twirled the joint between my fingers, brought it to my lips, and struck the match. Rows below me, my wife heard the hiss of the flame kicking to life, and whirled around in her chair in time to see me light the bud on fire. She smiled at me — her eyes expressing courage and pride and resolve — and then turned back to watch the MPs below. I took a few puffs to draw oxygen into the flame, then inhaled deeply, curled my tongue, and sent a series of smoke rings floating over the Gallery, beyond the railing, and out into the open, idle air over the heads of Canada’s most powerful men and women. And again. And again.
My wife watched the reaction. It took a few minutes. The Gallery was now mostly empty, but a few heads turned my way. Down in the Chamber, where the MPs sat behind their white-oak desks, noses began to rise. Some faces registered confusion; others alarm or surprise. A few (probably the leftists) registered a knowing smile. They began to look up, toward the Gallery and the direction of the scent, and of course who did they see looking right back down at them: my wife!
I puffed my way through about half the joint before the security guard reached Ray, who sat in the aisle seat shielding me. “You can’t smoke in here,” the guard said.
“I’M NOT SMOKING,” I REPLIED CALMLY. “I’M USING MY MEDICINE.”
I pulled out the Health Canada document that contained my MMAR license, but the guard waved me off. “Sir, you cannot smoke in the House of Commons.”
“There is no law in this country,” I said, beginning a line I had rehearsed hundreds of times, “that says a citizen cannot access his legally prescribed medication. There is no law, no bylaw — not federally, not provincially, not municipally — that you can point to and say, ‘This is why you have to stop.’”
“Sir, I need you to put that out and come with me. You are smoking in a federal building.”
“The Government of Canada,” I pressed on, “allows me to grow cannabis and acknowledges that it brings me relief from my symptoms. I can’t help the fact that the only way they allow me to consume this medicine is by smoking it. I’m in pain right now, I need my medicine.”
The irony of smoking a joint — anywhere — was not lost on me. I didn’t even like smoking. Then as now, I prefer cannabis edibles for pain mitigation. And as for abating my cancer and diabetes and liver damage, that’s what highly concentrated doses like suppositories are for. I never advised smoking cannabis — but Health Canada did. The MMAR did not permit possession of oils, butters, or other extracts. And besides, I knew I wasn’t going to turn any heads walking into the House of Commons and eating a brownie. (And I’d probably make the wrong kind of impact if I dropped my pants and gave myself a suppository.) The guard was unmoved by my reasoning.
“Sir, you don’t have the right—”
“Excuse me,” I said, resolutely, and by this time my other friends and my lawyer had gathered around me. “My pain compels me to seek medicine. That medicine is cannabis. You talk about my right? My license, my Charter, my country, my dignity — that’s what gives me the right.” The guard was speechless as my temper rose, so I tried to assuage him.
“Look, you’re being lied to, just like I am. This is supposed to be fair. This is supposed to be just. This isn’t supposed to be the kind of thing where people are forced to make moral compromises. But those people down there” — I pointed toward the MPs, who were continuing with their regularly scheduled debate despite the obvious aromatic intrusion — “they are forcing us to choose between our health and our freedom. There’s a huge hole in the system, and they are responsible. And on behalf of thousands of Canadians caught in the middle, I won’t stand for it anymore.”
Eventually, I consented to my own removal and allowed myself to be led out of Parliament under security escort, though I was not arrested. Later that day, I was on CBC’s “Power and Politics” with host Evan Solomon.He asked me about my motivation. I told him about the situation with Les, how patients are facing delays up to 10 months from Health Canada for their licenses, and thus people with serious illnesses or in palliative care are being denied their medicine, their dignity, their rights. As I smoked another joint on set with him, Evan got caught up in the whole “isn’t smoking bad for you?” question. I gladly agreed with him, and reminded him of the fact that the government only allows patients to smoke. I reminded him that most patients are forced to buy marijuana that is overpriced and may contain harmful pesticides and other chemicals. It was 2010, and I was talking to one of the most informed and respected journalists in the country, and yet to him (and to millions of others), using cannabis was still an oddity, a barely tolerated act of desperation or perhaps insanity. It still wasn’t close to being normalized and accepted. If even a great journalist wasn’t yet educated, what could I expect of the rest of the country?
I was just starting to develop my unified theory of government neglect and incompetence on cannabis, but even that day, it wasn’t fully formed. I was just beginning to appreciate the depth and stubbornness of the Great Cannabis Conspiracy. It was so deeply entrenched, it’s a wonder any of us can see it at all.