COVER

Rebel with a compelling cause

Mark Nichols August 6 2001
COVER

Rebel with a compelling cause

Mark Nichols August 6 2001

Rebel with a compelling cause

COVER

ONE OF THE WORST MOMENTS IN Jim Wakeford’s life came last March as he rode in a taxi through rural Ontario, smoking marijuana and chatting with the driver. Suddenly, an Ontario Provincial Police cruiser appeared alongside. Ordering the taxi to pull over, officers arrested Wakeford and seized a pound of marijuana he planned to share with friends in Toronto who, like him, use the drug for medical purposes. Eleven days earlier, local cops had raided a rented farmhouse in Udora, 75 km northeast ofToronto, and seized about 200 marijuana plants Wakeford was growing there. Now, the 56-year-old AIDS patient was taken to a station to be photographed, fingerprinted and charged with drug offences, including possession for the purpose of trafficking. “I was freaking out,” recalls Wakeford. “I was just terrified.” But Wakeford noticed that the cops were uneasy, too. “I think they were humiliated,” he says,

“to be busting someone who has a legal exemption to use marijuana.”

The episode underscored the catch-22 contradictions embedded in federal policy since Ottawa began granting exemptions for the medical use of marijuana—regulations that permit sick people to smoke pot, but force many of them to obtain the drug illegally. Emaciated by AIDS, but doggedly energetic, Wakeford has emerged as a highly visible warrior in the batde to make the drug available without a web of bureaucratic restrictions. New regulations that took effect this week—making Canada the first nation to establish a regulatory framework for the medical use of marijuana—appeared partly designed to meet his demands. But Wakeford says the new rules “don’t change anything—they will make it even harder for sick people to get marijuana.”

A veteran social activist and a prominent member of Toronto’s gay community, Wakeford first went to court in February, 1998, seeking a constitutional exemption to use marijuana for medical reasons. He won his case, forcing Ottawa, in June, 1999, to grant him one of the first legal exemptions. Since then, federal officials have issued exemptions to about 300 Canadians suffering from AIDS, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and other diseases.

But Wakeford’s exemption hasn’t made his life any easier. Because he’s tried to grow or buy marijuana for those who couldn’t otherwise get it, he has been plagued by a series of busts. So far

this year, he’s been arrested three times for growing and possessing more than the seven plants and 30 g of smokable marijuana the previous federal rules allowed. “They want to make an example of Jim,” says his lawyer, Alan Young, a longtime opponent of federal marijuana laws. “But they picked the wrong guy, because Jim is a fighter.”

The roots of Wakeford’s defiance go back to growing up gay in Chaplin, Sask., midway between Moose Jaw and Swift Current. “I never felt I belonged,” he remembers. “I was called every name you could think of.” That didn’t stop him from springing to the defence of other bullied children. “I’ve always believed,” he says, “that strong people should help those who are weaker.”

Moving to Toronto when he was 19, Wakeford in 1967 founded

and for 20 years ran Oolagen Community Services, a Toronto treatment centre for troubled young people. And in 1992, he played a central role in establishing a fundraising foundation for Casey House, a Toronto hospice for AIDS patients. By 1993, Wakeford was fighting fullblown AIDS himself, suffering nausea and loss of appetite. He says he’d smoked marijuana 25 years earlier, but rarely after that. As an AIDS sufferer, he says, “I was amazed to discover that the drug I’d once had so much fun with is terrifically effective as a medicine.”

In his continuing war with federal authorities, Wakeford is now asking the Ontario Court of Appeal to order Ottawa to supply him with marijuana, or protect his suppliers from the police. Under the new regulations, doctors will be allowed to recommend varying amounts of pot according to patients’ needs, and federally licensed growers will be permitted to supply one patient each with medical marijuana. Wakeford argues that Ottawa’s new regulations won’t work. “Most doctors don’t know anything about marijuana,” he says, “and they won’t prescribe it.”

Meanwhile, the busts and court battles have taxed Wakeford’s dwindling physical and financial resources. Because he never expected to survive AIDS as long as he has, the payout from an insurance policy he cashed in six years ago is running out. “I’m beaten and just about destitute,” says Wakeford. “But,” he adds of his crusade to make marijuana freely available to the sick and dying, “I won’t give up.”

Mark Nichols

Jim Wakeford fights to make marijuana freely available to the sick and dying