Compassion clubs offer a range of medical marijuana products to fill a void in Health Canada's legal supply channel, doctors and patients say.
Ottawa offers only one strain of medical marijuana, and the only legal way to purchase it is through Health Canada. Medical users insist the different strains of marijuana provided by compassion clubs offer different kinds of pain relief, such as for epilepsy, multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injury. However, there hasn't been any research testing those claims.
Since Canada became the first country to adopt a formal system to regulate the medicinal use of marijuana through the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations in 2001, more than 4,000 Canadians have gained a legal right to use it — if they grow it themselves, find someone to grow it for them or buy it from Health Canada through the mail.
"I think it's high time we cleaned up that kind of regulatory process and put some kind of quality control on the cannabis that's being provided, and give patients and physicians some reassurances that at least we know what the patients are using when they use this drug," said Dr. Mark Ware of the Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids in Montreal.
Angie Sawula, who smokes marijuana to control her epileptic seizures and has a permit to possess marijuana from Health Canada, was arrested when police raided the compassion club or medical dispensary in Toronto where she buys the drug.
"It was really scary for us," the mother of two recalled of the March 31 raid. "We all went through a lot of trauma," after being held in a jail cell from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m.
After an undercover police raid at the offices of Cannabis as Living Medicine or CALM, nine people were charged with trafficking. The dispensary that has operated for 14 years was closed, and customers' medical marijuana supply was cut off.
On Monday, charges were dropped against Sawula and seven other members of CALM. The club's owner, Neev Tapiero, faces charges that could send him to jail. He is planning a challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, saying people who are legally authorized to possess the drug are being forced to get it from an illegal source.
"We are in a position to change the law and I suspect we will," Tapiero said. "I'm very confident about our argument and our position here. This is really Health Canada's big problem that they have to solve. I'm just the little guy caught in the middle."
It was a charter challenge that lead to the original medical marijuana act. Supporters such as Sawula hope the new constitutional fight will bring medical marijuana out of the back alleys and regulate compassion clubs so police won't shut down the clubs.
"We have several contract producers and we make sure that they have a very clean operation, that the cannabis we get is mold and fungus free, it's of a high therapeutic value and it gets thoroughly tested," Tapiero said.
Club staff say they verify medical documents by calling the doctor to make sure they've signed the exemption and the application is not fraudulent. Clients are then assigned a membership number.
Sawula said she felt like a criminal when she was arrested. But when she bought marijuana on the street, her seizures came back full force.
"It's like giving a cancer patient an Aspirin and saying here you go. You need something more."
Storm Peschel, 17, of Kewsick, Ont., inhales medical marijuana several times a day to relieve pain. Peschel has multiple synostosis syndrome — a rare genetic disease that causes his bones to fuse.
"Ever since I was born, I've had intense pain," Peschel said. "Previously, I was prescribed codeine — which is an opiate and it's a lot harder than cannabis — and I was tired, I was groggy. Cannabis doesn't have any of those bad side-effects."
Peschel is also a licensed medical user. Since CALM was raided, people have reached out to offer him medical marijuana.
"I don't think I've ever had a parking ticket, same thing with my husband," said Georgia Peschel. "This is his medicine now, and if he doesn't have it then I will do what I have to do because I'm not gonna watch him suffer anymore."
When medical marijuana regulations have faced charter challenges in the past, courts have ruled in favour of advocates.
CBC News made repeated requests for an interview with Health Canada. The department responded by email:"The government of Canada is currently considering longer-term measures to revise the Marijuana Medical Access Program and its regulations. Our review is focusing on three key areas: public safety and security, reasonable access to marijuana for medical purposes, and examining overall costs to the government."