Remembering Cannabis Heroes

Jim Wakeford (1944-)

By Sam Mellace

The AIDS epidemic forced a massive rethinking of drug policy and compassionate use, and so it is only fitting that some of the earliest heroes of patients’ rights were sufferers of AIDS. Jim Wakeford was one such hero. Jim had been a pioneer in harm reduction and hospice care for drug users and terminally ill patients even before he was diagnosed with HIV in 1989.

When he began to experience the awful symptoms of the disease and the side effects of early anti-retroviral drugs — including nausea, chronic pain, and wasting syndrome — he started smoking a lot of cannabis to relieve his suffering, stimulate his appetite, and boost his immune system. Canada’s 1996 drug law made Jim a felon for his personal and medicinal cannabis use, so he sued the federal government, alleging that the blanket criminalization of cannabis violated his constitutional right to life and liberty. His lawyer was Alan Young, a York University law professor who had been one of the founders of the Canadian chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Together, they raised donations and awareness for a legal challenge, targeting a little-known clause of the 1996 drug law called Section 56. According to this clause, Health Canada “may, on such terms and conditions as the Minister deems necessary, exempt any person or class of persons or any controlled substance if, in the opinion of the Minister, the exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purpose.” In other words, the law provided some wiggle room for medical science to subvert the criminality of cannabis. In 1999, a federal court in Ontario agreed with Jim Wakeford that his constitutional rights had been violated, and he became the first Canadian to receive a Section 56 exemption to use cannabis legally for medicinal purposes. It was a landmark breakthrough. One clever grower in British Columbia even created a new strain of cannabis to honour Jim, giving it the name “Wakeford Kush.” It’s known for relieving pain and stimulating appetite. 

While Jim Wakeford had won the right to use cannabis for his health, he had not technically won the right to access it. Like every other user, Wakeford still had to go through the black market to get his weed. Section 56, he explained to a journalist at the time, did not “give me legal access to marijuana. I can’t get seeds or clones legally, nor does it give care providers immunity. Two of my caregivers have been busted and one had his crop cleared out. One was convicted of trafficking for selling to me and other sick people.” In other words, Jim and other Section 56 patients still had to obtain their cannabis from growers, and all growers were, technically, operating as drug traffickers in violation of federal law. 

Sam Mellace's new book, The Great Cannabis Conspiracy, chronicles the struggle for cannabis law reform in Canada. To learn more, please click  here .

Sam Mellace's new book, The Great Cannabis Conspiracy, chronicles the struggle for cannabis law reform in Canada. To learn more, please click here.