Bail rules block centre from selling pot
Group claims it only supplies marijuana to the terminally ill
Thursday, August 15, 2002
[picture]Warren Hitzig stands with Alison Myrden, who is licensed by Health Canada to use marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Three men and one woman arrested by a Toronto drug squad were released on bail yesterday on the condition they shut down a medical marijuana distribution network they have built up in order to sell drugs to 1,200 Ontarians.
Warren Hitzig, 25, Zachary Naftolin, 24, Andrea Horning, 41, and Markos Koutoukis, 25, were taken into custody by members of the Toronto Drug Squad South late Tuesday at the culmination of an investigation by police into the Toronto Compassion Centre, a marijuana distribution network run by Hitzig that offers "medicinal" drugs to terminally ill club members.
Yesterday, the four appeared before a Toronto judge, who agreed to release them on bail under strict conditions, including abandoning the practice of trafficking drugs to the organization's 1,200 members, whose numbers have been growing since the centre opened in 1998.
"Technically, we know there is no legal authority for us to distribute marijuana to sick people," said Alan Young, a Toronto lawyer and a spokesman for the centre.
Young said the centre has been operating illegally for five years, ever since his requests for authorization were turned down by the Department of Justice and Health Canada.
While it is legal for patients to possess and cultivate marijuana for certain medical conditions, it remains illegal for organizations to sell marijuana to those patients.
However, he said he was shocked to learn police had raided the centre because police and government officials have known about the operation for years and have had full access to the premises, which he said operates on the principle of full disclosure.
"The police knew that if they felt they needed to take the club down, we would have given them the case on a silver platter," Young said.
"I have personally spoken to at least 12 police officers since the start who have arrested people buying from the club. Each and every time police were willing to turn a blind eye because they knew what the public service element of this was," he said. "If this club was going to traffic to non-medical users, it would not operate openly."
Because he sought authorization from the beginning, Young said he believes the centre has a legal case, based on the concepts of medical necessity and "no other reasonable legal alternative," a principle used successfully by abortion activist Henry Morgentaler.
He said he believes the police investigation began last December, when officers were called to the centre's headquarters on Bathurst Street after a break-in.
"We had had so many positive interactions in the past, I believed we were skating on very solid ice," he said. "Unfortunately [at the time of the break-in], there was a certain amount of inventory in their basement, and with so many officers being there no one was willing to simply walk away from it. I told the investigating officer that if the police decided they wanted to lay charges, I would provide any witnesses or documentation they needed to build a case," he said.
Yesterday Sergeant Jim Muscat, a spokesman for the Toronto Police Department, said police have used discretion when laying charges for possession of small amounts of marijuana, but never for trafficking.
"Essentially, this location is a business where marijuana is sold for profit. There is a fine line between what the explanation may be and what the truth is," he said.
"The officers investigating the case have more evidence to suggest that marijuana is not merely being sold to people for medicinal purposes."
Warren Hitzig, founder and director of the club, said prospective members must present documentation from a physician stating they require marijuana or hashish for medicinal purposes to help manage pain or a terminal illness.
Members must also observe strict rules, including abstaining from reselling or redistributing the drugs they buy at the non-profit centre regardless of whether they have a licence from the federal government to possess or grow pot.
His centre, he said, exists because while the government has begun to authorize terminally ill people to smoke pot, there is nothing in place to help patients grow it.
"We are trying to provide a legitimate resource. The only reason we exist is because the government hasn't established [a resource] itself," Hitzig said.