GUELPH - It's a controversial operation but quietly so.
While it promotes itself and its workings via the internet, it guards its location closely. Even when you've arrived at the lobby of the downtown building where it's situated - for now at least - only a simple sign marks its presence. White plastic letters on a brown board softly announce: Medical Club of Guelph.
The front door of the second-floor office is always locked. A doorbell chimes when a visitor wants access.
Behind the closed door, employees of the club - the Medical Cannabis Club of Guelph - dispense medical marijuana. It opened just over three years ago. It has quietly grown to 238 members.
The discreetness is to keep away those seeking recreational marijuana, said club founder Rade Kovacevic.
Kovacevic, a 24-year-old medical marijuana user himself, began the club after becoming disabled about three years ago. He suffers from myofascial pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease and three herniated discs.
"I went from lying on a couch all day, walking at a 90-degree angle, to now running a business."
His business is the club and a related marijuana growing operation in Guelph.
Both operate in seeming legal grey areas.
According to Health Canada, private medical marijuana dispensaries are illegal and legal access to marijuana for medical reasons can only be obtained from Health Canada.
But Kovacevic said he's not worried about operating outside Health Canada's distribution system for the drug.
Sitting inside the club's office, where the dispensing takes place, Kovacevic talked frankly about the services the club offers the chronically ill. Members can buy marijuana from $7 to $10 a gram, depending on the strain. Some strains are offered at a discount if the grower offered it to the club at a compassionate price, if the plant produced more or if the smell and taste is slightly poor but the marijuana isn't lacking in medicinal quality, he said. Prices on the street can be about $10 a gram or more.
A locked display case sits beside the club's front counter. It contains samples of different marijuana strains, in small, clear, plastic bags. Several small marijuana plants sit in a tray on a table off to the side of Kovacevic's desk. Just behind the desk is a safe, with a built-in freezer, wrapped with a heavy chain and a padlock. It is filled with sealed bags of marijuana as well as cookies and fudge containing marijuana.
"If I go to court, I have Supreme Court of Canada precedents explaining what I am doing. . . . However the police are put in a difficult position because there has not been legislation enacted that allows us to operate," Kovacevic said.
The Guelph Police Service's drug unit is well aware of the club.
In the last year, Sgt. Tom Gill said three local doctors have called police inquiring about the club because patients have asked them to sign forms allowing access to medical marijuana from it.
Gill said concerns expressed about the club are currently under police investigation.
Inside the club, Health Canada forms and pamphlets related to a variety of social services line the wall. If prospective clients lack a Health Canada authorization to possess or grow marijuana for medical purposes, the club provides required application documentation as well as another form to be filled out by a physician outlining the illness and symptoms a patient suffers.
The latter form doesn't require consent from Health Canada or processing by the agency. With it signed by a physician, a patient can purchase medical marijuana at the club.
Guelph Dr. Anne-Marie Zadjlick said she's been approached to sign such forms and refused because she doesn't have much knowledge about the club.
"When patients come to me with Health Canada forms, I do fill it out but I adhere strictly to the criteria," she said.
Zadjlick said she has found marijuana is an effective medicine for palliative care and for several of her patients who suffer from multiple sclerosis and HIV/AIDS. It helps improve appetite, weight gain and reduces pain, she said.
Kovacevic said some people suffering terminal illnesses, such as some forms of cancer, don't have time for Health Canada to process their application. He said that's why he makes the physician-consent forms available.
"The person has a prescription and I'm able to sell them marijuana," he said. "In my point of view, there is nothing illicit in that type of transaction."
The lengthy application process is only one of the issues, Kovacevic and other medical marijuana users have with the Health Canada system, which came into effect in July 2001. Several cite the inability to access different marijuana strains through Health Canada and the agency's prohibition of designated growers growing for more than two people as troubling.
Meanwhile, city police have their own concerns.
Gill said since Health Canada doesn't assign inspectors to monitor homes of designated growers, people shouldn't be allowed to grow marijuana within their homes. It poses safety issues, in terms of the amount of hydro used and makes the home susceptible to break and enters, he said.
Just over a year ago, Gill obtained a search warrant for a home where the owner was growing about 25 marijuana plants.
"The hydro consumption was out of this world," Gill said, adding police later learned the man had a Health Canada license to grow marijuana and no charges were laid in the matter.
"He really didn't know what he was doing. He had way too many high-powered lights for the plants he had," said Gill.
Gill said the lights were also installed in such a way that he was worried it posed a possible fire hazard.
Health Canada spokesperson Philipe Laroche said its inspectors conduct inspections but rarely at private residences.
"At this time, Health Canada's inspection efforts are focused on areas of greatest risk, such as inspection of licensed producers to prevent diversion of precursor chemicals to clandestine drug laboratories," Laroche stated, in an email. "However, if a law enforcement agency suspects an authorized producer of illegal activity, then this is an enforcement issue and falls under the enforcement agency's jurisdiction."
In another drug investigation, Gill said police were watching a Guelph man involved with the sale and use of crack cocaine, and learned he was authorized by Health Canada to grow about 30 marijuana plants.
His involvement in the drug subculture, along with his legitimate grow-op, makes the man's home a potential for a robbery, Gill said.
Police have tried to find out how many Guelph residents hold a production license authorized by Health Canada. However, for confidentiality reasons, the government won't release city by city statistics.
As of early October, 4,580 Canadians held an authorization to possess dried marijuana under the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations. As of then, 643 Canadians were licensed as designated growers.
According to Kovacevic, there are about 60 people in the cannabis club, growing about five to 10 plants within their homes in Guelph and Wellington County. At least another dozen grow larger quantities of about 40 plants, he said.
A medicine that helps a sick person shouldn't be taken from them, Gill said, adding he would just prefer medical marijuana be dispensed at a pharmacy.
Health Canada marijuana is mailed to authorized users. They pay $5 per gram for the supply. Health Canada pays Prairie Plant Systems Inc. to grow government-certified marijuana in a mine shaft in Flin Flon, Man.
A Guelph man who grows medical marijuana in his home for his use, with a federal designation to do so, said since Health Canada only provides the variety it currently does, he doesn't access it. He said he finds other strains more effective. The man grows in his basement but sought not to be identified for the story as he fears being a target for crime because of his plants.
Laroche said the marijuana type offered by Health Canada was selected for such things as its crop yield, THC concentration and flowering period. The THC concentration is between 10.5 per cent and 14.5 per cent. Officials at the Guelph cannabis club, estimate the THC concentration in its various strains range between 10 to 25 per cent, however the club doesn't have the capability to provide accurate test results.
"The product distributed on behalf of the Government of Canada is geared toward addressing the needs of the average authorized person," stated Laroche via email response.
The Guelph grower said he doesn't consider himself the average authorized person as he suffers from several disabling conditions. He refused to specify his illnesses out of concern it might identify him. Sitting at his kitchen table, with sunlight peeking through the blinds, he said he endured years of complications with other medications. Marijuana is the only product that alleviates the symptoms of all of his conditions, he said
With some hesitation, he revealed the 50 or so marijuana plants growing in his home.
"I feel very insecure," he said, leading the way down a wooden staircase and opening a steel door. "I know that if it became public knowledge, we would be in a very dangerous situation. There are many people in this city that would come in here with weapons."
Brilliant sodium and metal halide lights poured out when the steel door opened. Inside, reflective white material covered walls of two rooms that greenhouse the marijuana plants. Some were more than a metre high.
Only a handful of people, who need to know, are aware of the grow, he said. An electrician ensured it met safety regulations, he said.
"I am not going to jeopardize my safety," said the grower, in response to Gill's suggestion that Health Canada inspectors should monitor homes to ensure licensed grow operations are run safely. "If somebody had a passion for orchids and was using the very same equipment that would be using to grow medical cannabis, they would not be scrutinized. Nor should we."
He said he had little choice but to grow his own marijuana in his own home.
He said another Health Canada-designated grower provided for him but then moved away. He said he doesn't trust anyone else to grow his medicine properly and finds it can be expensive to continually rely on the cannabis club for his supply.
If Health Canada removed its restriction that a designated grower can only supply two people, fewer people would grow in their own homes, Kovacevic said.
In a roughly 2,000 square-foot Guelph industrial building, containing 20 1,000-watt high-pressure sodium light fixtures, Kovacevic and his partner are licensed to grow about 100 plants. They grow for three people.
The site is Kovacevic's second business-Guelph Compassion Centre and Research Institute. It began operations in February.
Although, Kovacevic visits homes of several first-time growers of the club to provide advice, he said an industrial setting is the safest for growing marijuana.
"These buildings are meant for this purpose and it's separate from homes, so it gets rid of all these worries that people have around theft, fire or odour," he said.
The desire to have others grow his medical marijuana is why one Toronto resident comes to the local cannabis club.
"I don't know anything about growing," said the 34-year-old man, who refused to reveal his identity. "You are taking your chances and you might not be left with anything."
He said he takes about one gram of marijuana per day to cope with a sleep disorder. He said other medical options only left him with "horrendous side effects."
"If it wasn't for the cannabis, I would lay awake and toss and turn all night."
Apparently, clients such as the Toronto resident need not travel to tap the Guelph club's supply, however. On its website, the club also offers a mail-order service.
The website also states that the club is expanding. On Jan. 4, it advises, it will relocate to an unspecified larger location where it promises to "offer improved services and a generally more spacious environment."
December 18, 2009