Narco News '02
By Alejandro Bustos
News Canadian Correspondent
on Canada's west coast, is proving
to be a nightmare for those who insist on fighting the war on
From constitutional court challenges to
the creation of the largest medicinal marijuana club in the country,
this Pacific Coast city is full of activists who are organizing
against the drug warriors.
As a case in point, consider David Malmo-Levine,
a Vancouver pot activist who is fighting to have Canada's marijuana
laws declared unconstitutional. The laws, he tells me, could
be struck down by the end of this year.
"It could be as soon as early-December,"
the 31-year-old predicts. "At the latest by mid-July (2003)."
This coming Fall, the Supreme Court of
Canada is scheduled to hear a constitutional challege against
the country's laws that prohibit both possession and trafficking
The historic legal challenge is being
led by Malmo-Levine, who was charged in December 1996 for both
possession and trafficking of marijuana, and two other men: Victor
Eugene Caine, aka Randy Caine, and Ontario-resident Christopher
Rather than launch separate court actions,
the three men, who were all charged with marijuana offences in
separate incidents, will present a united constitutional challenge
in the Supreme Court. If they win, it could start a revolution
in Canada's approach to the war on drugs.
In the meantime, as he prepares for his
historic Supreme Court battle, Malmo-Levine is busy working on
another project, namely, informing his fellow citizens about
the presence of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents on
As we sit in a restaurant called Havana's
-- an appropriate place to give the bird to Washington's drug
policy -- Malmo-Levine begins his verbal assault on the U.S.
"They (the DEA) are in our country
giving us bad advice," he says. "Canada has always
been morally ahead of the U.S. We did it with slavery, the women's
vote, alcohol prohibition, Cuba, Vietnam and the death penalty."
If things turn in his favour, we may soon add "drug prohibition"
to this list.
For those in the U.S., who are accustomed
to an insane anti-drug jihad, the upcoming Supreme Court of Canada
case and anti-DEA work is pretty remarkable. If you travel north
of the 49th parallel, however, you will quickly notice that there
are many other initiatives being launched by Canadian activists
to fight the war on drugs.
One such initiative is the Vancouver Area
Network of Drug Users, a lobby group for intravenous drug users
and former users that was founded in January 1998. The group,
one of the largest of its kind in the world, has had a big impact
since it came on the scene more than four years ago.
"The reduction in overdose deaths can be attributable
to our work," says Dean Wilson,
president of VANDU.
The statistics support Wilson's statement.
Between January and May of this year, there were 21 fatal drug
overdose deaths in Vancouver, according to the coroner's office.
During the same period last year the figure was 48.
The 2002 and 2001 figures, meanwhile,
are significantly lower than the horrific overdose numbers of
even a few years ago. In a story dated Aug. 11, 1998, the Associated
Press reported that: "So far this year, 224 people in British
Columbia -- mostly from Vancouver's skid-row areas -- have died
of overdoses, up 40 percent from last year."
In response to the horrific level of death
that plagued the city in the mid- to late-90's, VANDU began to
educate drug users about how to prevent overdoses. That is why
if you walk by their needle exchange program today, you can hear
VANDU volunteers tell drug users not to shoot up alone, as well
as offering techniques on how to prevent the spreading of disease.
Through projects like the needle exchange,
VANDU has lobbied local politicians and the police to adopt harm
reduction models when dealing with drugs. They also give a voice
to drug users, a segment of society that is normally left out
when drug policies are debated.
As a sidenote, it's interesting to note
that harm reduction is now the official policy of the Vancouver
Police Board. How much of a role VANDU played in the police board's
decision to adopt harm reduction is not clear. But as one member
of VANDU put it: "It's like asking whether the NAACP helped
advance the cause of civil rights."
Another person who has dedicated their
life to helping people is Hilary Black, founder and co-director
of the BC Compassion Club Society, Canada's largest medicinal
Five years ago, armed solely with a dream
and backpack full of pot, Black began selling marijuana to Vancouver
residents who were sick. After getting 100 clients, along with
the backing of their doctors, Black went public with her idea
to use marijuana for medicinal purposes.
the Compassion Club has over 2,000 members
and 35 employees. It is also meticulously clean -- the reception
area could pass for a dentist's office filled with plants, if
it weren't for the board on the wall that listed the day's selection
What is really interesting, however, is
all the other options that the club offers to its members. Along
with marijuana, patients can access a herbal pharmacy, certified
counselors, a yoga program, traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture
and many other medical treatments.
The story of Black, 26, is a wonderful
example of what citizens can accomplish when they follow their
"We have a duty to protest laws that
are unethical," Black tells me in her office. "We have
truth and justice on our side, and in this case the law does
not have it."
John Richardson, a local lawyer and founding
member of Pivot Legal Society, would definitely agree with Black.
It was a sense of justice that drove him to create Pivot, a non-profit
organization in Vancouver's downtown Eastside that is also challenging
the narco warriors.
For the record, I am a University of British
Columbia law student that volunteers for Pivot. That is why I'm
talking shop with Richardson, 31, on a saturday afternoon over
"(In the fall of 2000) I was working
in the downtown Eastside in strategic litigation for the Sierra
Legal Defence Fund," Richardson tells me after I ask him
how he created Pivot. "The model that Sierra Legal uses
-- which is essentially aggressive legal advocacy for public
interest -- fit in perfectly with the downtown Eastside."
While at Sierra Legal, an environmental
law group, Richardson learned how to use the law to fight polluters
and government bureaucrats. Through this experience he came across
this idea: Why not use the same legal model as Sierra to defend
drug users, sex trade workers and other marginalized persons?
Today, lawyers, law students and community
activists all volunteer in various Pivot projects.
One such project is the affidavit program,
which is based on a simple idea: Record in a legal format the
story of any person that has suffered an illegal search and seizure,
unconstitutional arrest or other form of police abuse. After
the story has been written down, have the person swear before
Richardson that the events described therein are true. Once this
is done the story becomes evidence that can be used in a court
Through this program, Pivot has been able
to document police abuses against drug users. For instance, one
person I talked to -- let us call him Delphi Nguyen -- was busted
with $15 of heroin. The police never pressed charges, but they
did take $740. Nguyen told me that this was his rent money, and
that after losing it to the police was not able to pay his rent.
As a result, he lost his apartment and was forced to sleep in
his car as he scrambled for housing.
A team of lawyers is currently deciding
what legal action to take with the increasing number of affidavits.
meanwhile, is also distributing a "rights" card that outlines a person's constitutional rights
when detained by police. The business-size card is meant to fit
in a pocket or wallet. Whenever a person is arrested, they can
present the card to the officer. The card informs the police
that they do not have to co-operate and that a person being detained
has the right to remain silent and to speak to a lawyer.
The card is meant to protect people from
such things as illegal drug searches and unconstitutional arrests,
two police tactics that are very popular with the narco warriors.
Pivot's projects, along with the work
of VANDU and activists like Black and Malmo-Levine, show that
Vancouver residents are busy fighting the war on drugs on several
For Malmo-Levine, the struggle is about
challenging a failed policy that is costing Canadian taxpayers
$500 million a year and is resulting in more than 30,000 charges
for simple possession of marijuana.
For Wilson, the objective is to save lives,
prevent disease and give a voice to drug users, a group that
is normally marginalized from the drug debate but who suffer
the full brunt of the law.
For Black, the goal is to educate people
about how marijuana and other forms of alternative medicine can
provide assitance to ill people.
And for Richardson, his mission is to
use the law to defend the constitutional rights of some of the
most marginalized people in society.
Together, all of these activists are putting
up a strong challenge against those who insist on fighting a
drug war that has repeatedly been shown to fail.
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