Keith Martin discusses mandatory minimum sentences, medical marijuana, and party politics

On May 29, Kristen Mann interviewed Hon. Dr. Keith Martin at the Backpacker’s Inn, in Victoria. Here is the transcription.

Kristen Mann: Today we are sitting down with Dr. Keith Martin, longtime MP for Esquimalt/ Juan de Fuca. Dr. Martin, thank you for visiting us at Hempology 101. We have been providing education on the cannabis issues to our community for the past 14 years. You have preciously offered us support in our fight bill C-26, and it’s reincarnation as bill C-15. It is currently back as bill S-10, introduced into the senate. Can you tell me how you feel about this bill?

MP Dr. Keith Martin: The bill is criminalizing people for the simple possession of marijuana and that, we know, is going to be very destructive. The Council of Churches, Canadian Medical Association, Chiefs of police, and other organizations, have stated very clearly that the current drug laws, with respect to marijuana, are very punitive and they do more harm than good. What I have always advocated for—was to do what is doable—is to decriminalize the simple possession of marijuana and allow people to have up to five plants for their own use. And what that would do, it would not criminalize people and it would separate out the causal user from the organized crime gangs who are the real parasites in the situation. Those that are operating commercial grow operations are the only ones profiting off the situation.

Does the Liberal party have an official position on bill S-10?

Martin: No.

Some of the Liberal senators have been very outspoken in the debates before their house. Senator Carstairs said this bill will leave our nation’s young people with “a sentence which they will have to live with for the rest of their lives.” What do you think some of the other impacts of this bill will be?’

Martin: You could have a criminal record and that will impede the individual’s ability to do all kinds of things from employment—it’s like a rock around their ankles preventing them from actual being, fulfilling their dreams as an individual. It will also cost the taxpayers billions of dollars, and clog up our jails with people who simply should not be there.

What about our legal systems? With people pleading not guilty in the hope of avoiding the MMS?

Martin: That’s exactly what will happen. It will clog up the entire system. The entire judicial system will be clogged up with this bill. In fact the current bill the Conservatives have put forward is going to cost the taxpayers billions of dollars which they did not anticipate having to spend. On top of that, now Mr. Harper is pursuing this other bill that is going to put more costs—money we don’t have—in this deficit situation. Why is Mr. Harper and his government pursuing a corse of action that is unaffordable, ineffective, and targets mostly law abiding citizens.

Have you had an opportunity to talk with Mr. Ignatieff about this bill, and what the Liberals are prepared to do about it?

Martin: Well, we have a Justice Critic and that’s the one who deals with this. That will be up for debate internally within the caucus. I don’t know what the position of the party is at this point in time, but my position has been very clear. I oppose this type of punitive action against people who are casual users of marijuana. It is not appropriate to treat people who are casually using marijuana as a judicial problem. If you want to talk about it from a health prospective, I don’t support the use of marijuan as a physician other than for people who have medical problems where there may be some, is some, use for it. What causes a much greater harm in terms of health, is alcohol. Alcohol is a much, much, much more dangerous, destructive “drug” than marijuana. I did emergency medicine. I never saw someone who had taken marijuana, who came in, that had beaten somebody up or had driven a car and killed somebody. But I saw a lot of people who were drunk that had beaten somebody up, beaten their partner up, hurt themselves, or killed somebody else.

On a personal note, as somebody who voted for you in the last election, and as a fairly consistent Liberal vote, I was horrified that the Liberals voted yes on C-15. I was really disappointed, and I tried to have a conversation with Mr. Ignatieff on his campus tours, and he seemed to very much ignore my position. So, as an insider, we ask you to please help us.

Martin: I will, I will keep doing that. And there are others who feel the same way. This is a very contentious issue for us a lot of us. A lot of us in caucus did not support the bill, and for that reason. There are some parts of the bill that are good, actually, and I think that is what Mr. Ignatieff wanted to support. There are some parts of the bill that were good that go after people engaged in criminal activity, but the part about marijuana is not useful.

What do you think everyday Canadians need to do to communicate to their governments if they don’t approve of this bill.

Martin: People need to speak out in public. How governments change their behavior is if the public speaks out publicly. Governments move when there is a political penalty for their action—[when it] will hurt them. Governments move when there is penalty for their action or inaction. They will only know that if the public is aware of what this bill is. And what they need to do to defeat it is speak out and say to Mr. Harper “If you pursue this course of action then…”

Should we speak only to Mr. Harper, or should we speak to various members of our government?

Martin: You need people to speak out publicly in the press. Forget speaking to Mr. Harper, he already knows [the] peoples’ position. That won’t do anything. That will not change his behaviour. What will change his behaviour is if enough people out there are aware what this bill is, and what it will do. Then there will be a political penalty if he pursues it, and then he will change. So the key is not […] just to engage Mr. Harper, it is to take those concerns out into the press and to use social networking. Social networking is a powerful tool that you can use to make a difference.

You have been fighting for changes to the marijuana laws for a long time. Way back in 2002, you caused a bit of a controversy when you grabbed a ceremonial mace and tried to stand up for decriminalization. Can you please tell me a little bit more about that event?

Martin: What happened was that I had a bill, and still have a bill, up to decriminalize the simple possession of marijuana and the bill was coming up for reading, and prob- ably would have passed. What the government did that day was to take everything in the bill—the motion essentially said everything under the title would be removed— so if that motion would have passed they would have voted on a bill that had nothing in it, which was a flagrant abuse of my democratic rights and by extension the rights of the people. I had gone through the steps to have a bill put together that was debated, that was voted on, that was moving through the house in an appropriate way. For a government to be able to do this is a violation of our fundamental democratic rights, and it would have destroyed private members business forever. No one listened, I would have six national press conferences on it, and at those six press conferences, in total, one intern reporter came to one of them. Nobody came to any of them. I wrote eight op-ed pieces, and nobody published them. I had six national press [conferences] and only one junior reporter came once. Nobody was paying attention, but it was a really fundamental democratic issue. So, I said to the government, unless you change this, unless you play fair with this and let people vote fairly on this, you are not going to like the outcome. So I lifted the mace to draw attention to the issue, and it worked because it forced the the government to have a special hearing on drug policy [House of Commons Spe- cial Committee Report] that came out in favour of decriminalizing marijuana. And the other result was it caused a special committee on private members business. So that act of lifting the mace changed private members business forever so that now every member who is a member of parliament will have a chance to introduce a private members bill that is voted on without any government being able to remove that bill. So it was huge, I was really happy with that.

It’s good to see change happen.

Martin: But unfortunately I had to commit an illegal act to do it, and get thrown out of the house.

As a cannabis supporter, I can tell you that we commit illegal acts all the time to change the law. What got you involved in cannabis politics in the first place?

Martin: I am trying to change drug policy in Canada. The current drug laws in Canada are punitive. As a physician who has spent more than a dozen years working with alcohol and drug programs, and as somebody who has been a correctional officer in a jail, and as someone who has worked as a physician in both adult and juvenile jails, it is completely ridiculous to criminalize people—to look at drug use as a judicial problem, it is a medical problem. It needs be treated under the medical system, and not the judicial system. So, I am trying to change drug policy at large. For example, I want to introduce to Victoria a narcotics substitution plan for IV drug users, which works tremendously. It is called the NAOMI project, and it has been used in Vancouver [and Montreal]. And I want to have one here in Victoria for people who are IV drug users here. So it’s not cannabis policy, it is drug policy in general.

You have introduced your private member’s bill C-359 before the House of Commons. What I want to know is: what does decriminalization mean to you?

Martin: What is in the bill is that people who are caught under a certain amount [one gram of hash, 30 g of marijuana, the current Simple Possession amounts] would receive fines instead of going through the judicial system, and the court system, and potentially having a criminal record, which is so destructive to the individual. The other thing I added to the new bill is to allow people to grow up to five plants.

Five plants would give you over 30 grams, would it not? So you could grow your five plants, but as soon as you harvested them it would be illegal possession because it would be over your 30 grams.

Martin: If you harvested your five plants, if you didn’t harvest five plants, you won’t.

You can get a 1/4 pound off a single plant if you grow it well. I am a big believer that if everyone could grow a couple of [marijuana] plants for themselves in the backyard, we would eliminate the gang problem in the marijuana industry almost immediately.

Martin: That’s right. That is the purpose of it.

Why not just legalization. Where you could impose a legal framework where you can say things like, “You can have this amount,” “You can only possess it if you are over this age,” “You can grow this many plants.” Why not just turn to a legalization platform and then try to work on the regulations?

Martin: Because it wouldn’t fly. I have to do in my job, I have to bring people who are [highly opposed] to [the middle]. I have to work in the realm of what is doable. If I take a course of action which is not doable, then I am wasting everybody’s time. But if I can bring people who are opposed to it this far, then I am doing something. And then from there, we can work on moving.

I would say that decriminalization in not a middle point but a complete lack of regulation. It really is just removing the criminalization. With legaliza- tion you can tax [marijuana] and you can regulate it. And I know the word “legalization” is really scary in the parliamentary realm, and this has come up before, that the word “legalization” scares a lot of people, but I think it is actually more enforceable, more regulatory than simple decrim.

Martin: I have to work in the realm of what is politically doable. I have to work in realpolitik. On a factual basis, you are absolutely right.

Why is it that people are so afraid of legalization?

Martin: They are afraid that everyone will start using it. It’s an irrational thought. It’s like saying that just because alcohol is legal we are all going to go out and get drunk all the time. It doesn’t happen because people don’t. And they worry about chil- dren which is a legitimate concern because marijuana is very damaging, at the THC levels that we have, to children. It does affect the way that their brain forms, in the frontal lobe, and the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system which is extremely important in terms of behaviour. So, that is the concern people have and it is understandable, however, if you look and alcohol prohibition com- pared to what we have now, prohibiting alcohol caused a huge amount of issues. It is the same problem we are having now with marijuana. I have to work in the realm of what’s doable. If I pursue another course, I will have no traction what so ever. This ball will not move anywhere and I am trying to move the ball to a place where we can at least have people listen to the arguments, and then be curious about them and engage us in trying to have better drug policies in Canada. Reduce harm, reduce use, reduce criminalization, to reduce costs. But that is why I am trying to work in the realpolitik of the environment I am in.

We much appreciated the efforts you make. As I am sure you know, there are around 4000 Canadians who are legal cannabis consumers, licensed by Health Canada. Have you [as a physician] ever signed an MMAR (Marijuana Medical Exemption Regulation form)?

Martin: I have not. No one has ever come to me to do that.

Would you consider filling them out for one of your constituents who has had problems getting the forms filled out by their regular doctor, if they brought you their medical documentation? Would you be willing to sign a form like that for them?

Martin: If I was practicing medicine, yes I would do that but I am not practicing medicine right now, so my license is actually on hold. So I can’t prescribe [anything]. If I need a prescription for something I actually have to go see a physician.

Many of our members have had a lot of problems trying to get these forms signed. They face serious physical disabilities and diseases, yet their doctors, whom they may have been with for 20 or 30 years, won’t sign these forms due to legal repercussions or personal biases. I would love to see you encourage doctors, as you understand the profession, and encourage them to stand up for their patient’s rights.

Martin: And I think the problem that they are having is that it put patient’s in a tough, and it puts doctors in, a tough position too. Because he or she is going to be made to look like a criminal because it is illegal still. We need to change the way that we see marijuana, and a lot of it is based on ignorance and fear. One of the reasons I left [the Conservative Party] is that the current Prime Minister’s views on drug policy will kill people. He has been trying to take InSite [the supervised injection site in Van- couver] to court to overrule a court deci- sion that says “this is an intervention that is medically necessary to save lives”—the court said that—“and you have to provide it.” So Harper is actually trying to overturn that court decision, and it will kill people. [Fighting] that is what I am doing.

Do you, as a doctor, believe that it is healthier for a patient to consume cannabis by smoking it or by eating it?

Martin: It depends on the person’s situation. If a person is taking marijuana for a medical purpose like wasting disease, like HIV/AIDS, or a malignancy, it is better to smoke it.

Why is that?

Martin: It is the combination of chemicals and they way they are absorbed into the system. We are not actually sure why that is. When people are prescribed THC orally, it doesn’t work as well as when people smoke it.

That is because it is only one cannabinoid. That has nothing to do with the oral absorption. Have you heard of Dr. Hornby’s Cannacaps?

Martin: I am simply referring to the prescribed THC.

The prescribed THC is only THC or it is a combination of THC and CBD. The natural, plant based cannabis has anywhere between six to 12 additional secondary cannabinoids, as well as essential oils and terpenes.

Martin: I have never heard of this.

It is very interesting research, I urge you to look into it. Dr. Russo has done research down in the states, and Dr. Hornby here in Vancouver. The oral cannabis lasts longer in a person’s body. It is processed by the liver into a more useable form.

Martin: Interesting, I didn’t know that.

So you think it would be better for a patient to smoke it?

Martin: I don’t know. You are telling me something that I know nothing about. I only know about the prescribed version we have which, as you said, only has the THC in it versus the complex combination of products that are in the plant form.

Do you think the current Health Canada MMAR regulations are effective?

Martin: No. It definitely needs to be reviewed, and needs to be streamlined, and people need to have a much easier way of accessing. We need to stop putting physicians in a tough spot because they would be criminalized eventually .

I have a couple of products here that the Cannabis Buyers’ Club of Canada makes here in Victoria. One is a massage oil, this one here is a poultice. You would make them by taking cannabis leaf and toasting it and then simmering it in olive oil for several hours. You then strain the mixture through cheesecloth to separate the infused oil from the plant solids. The leaf matter here is wrapped up in new cheesecloth to make the poultice. The massage oil is very much a similar product in its effect. It is what has been strained out of the leaf. They are both applied topically and are effective as a pain killer, as an anti-inflammatory. People use it a lot in the treatment of arthritis, migraines, muscle aches. It has very little psychoactive effects. As well, your body’s CB2 receptors have a higher affinity for cannabis than your CB1 receptors in the brain, so when you apply it to your body it will start working there directly where it is absorbed. The poultice would be legal for a Health Canada exemptee to make and use, the massage oil would not be, by the simple act of straining it through cheesecloth, it becomes an illegal extraction. Does that make sense to you?

Martin: There are a lot of strange things around cannabis in this country, and health, as you know. This is where we actually need to change the laws. They are archaic, they are obsolete, they are illogical and irrational, in many ways.

Are you aware that no cannabis dispensaries in the country are legal under Health Canada’s framework. Their regulations do not provide any sort of support for the, about two dozen, private patient co-ops that help provide people with their medicine?

Martin: Well this is the problem. The laws are supposed to be there for people to access medicinal marijuana, but the application of those laws are wanting. There is a huge gap between the two.

Health Canada exemptees have the ability to possess, grow, and consume cannabis. If they use a physical or water extraction method to shake the trichomes off, they can smoke the “crystals” which provide less burning plant material into their lungs, it is illegal under the Health Canada regulations. With so many flaws in the exemption, and such finicky little details, what would it take to get some- one to propose a platform of legalization, and how would we start to write this kind of framework?

Martin: Another good question. I think the first thing you need to understand is that the current government looks at people who take drugs as bad people.

Of course, there is a wonderful [Stephen Harper] quote that goes: “Drugs are not bad because they are illegal, they are illegal because they are bad.”

Martin: Harper said he would rather have his kids be alcoholics than smoke pot. But that shows you what you are working with. You have got to understand that, and therefore understand that there are ways of forcing them to do not exactly what they want. They are not willing to listen to facts, to rational arguments, so the way to deal with them is to actually take the fight out into the public. The public understands what the facts are, and if they can speak out loudly against the current government and say, “We don’t want you to do this anymore. We don’t want you to criminalizing our brothers and sisters, our children, and parents then we will put the penalty on you if you do this.” They’ll move; we will move them. But that’s the way it is going to be, because they aren’t going to listen to rational thought.

***transcribed by Kristen Mann

Dr. Keith Martin’s Constituency Office is located at:

666 Granderson Road Victoria, B.C. V9B 2R8

Phone: 250.474.6505 Fax: 250.474.5322 e-mail: <MartiK1@parl.gc.ca>

Ottawa Office:

300 Justice Building Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6

Phone: 613.996.2625 Fax: 613.996.9779 e-mail: <Martin.K@parl.gc.ca>