Student files complaint after McMaster bars her from trip over medicinal marijuana

Halima Hatimy says she agreed not to take marijuana to Ghana. The university didn't believe her, and took her off the trip. Now she's filed a human rights complaint.

McMaster says it worried grad student Halima Hatimy didn't understand the risks

Halima Hatimy says she's filed a human rights tribunal complaint after McMaster University told her she couldn't go on an overseas trip for her course. The university says it was because she uses medical marijuana, and it didn't think she understood the danger of taking it to Ghana. Hatimy signed an affidavit stating otherwise. (Halima Hatimy)

A Hamilton grad student has filed a human rights complaint against McMaster University after the university excluded her from an overseas trip over her use of medical marijuana.

Literally, I felt like my world was falling apart around me.- Halima Hatimy

Halima Hatimy says she was supposed to take a course trip to Ghana — part of her goal to pursue a career in international healthcare and water security — in February.

But the day before she was scheduled to leave, the university told her she couldn't go. It feared she'd try to take marijuana to Ghana, even though the substance is illegal there, McMaster said in a letter. It also said it worried for her safety in a country where support is limited.

"McMaster has concluded that you do not appreciate the risk to yourself, McMaster or the other participants on the trip in attempting to bring marijuana and/or derivative products on the trip in contravention of Ghanian law," says a letter signed by provost David Wilkinson.

Hatimy's complaint focuses on racial discrimination she says occurred, not only in heated exchanges with university officials, but in the allegation that she'd engage in criminal behaviour by still taking marijuana to Ghana. She also says the university is discriminating based on her disability, and the treatment required for it.

This highlights a need for universities to have better policies when it comes to medicinal marijuana, she says.

"Literally, I felt like my world was falling apart around me," said Hatimy, who calls the trip the culmination of 12 years of work.

Halima Hatimy (applauding, far left) attended a Hamilton Police Services board meeting as part of the Black, Brown and Red Lives Matter group. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

And when it comes to dealing with medical marijuana cases, "the parties involved showed there is a general lack of understanding, not just from the lay person, but even from professionals."

In the past, Hatimy has been unafraid to speak out. She was heavily involved in Hamilton's Black, Brown, Red Lives Matter movement. She's been a vocal critic of Hamilton Police Service's approach to dealing with visual minorities. In 2014, she even became unwittingly embroiled in the city's mayoral race when she asked the candidates about gender equity, and protested when some of them made jokes about the issue

There were some challenges as we tried to explain the range of potential risks.- Gord Arbeau, McMaster University

More recently, Hatimy attended a provincial pre-budget consultation session to discuss FemCare Hamilton, which works to give underprivileged women better access to feminine hygiene products. She also holds a degree in health administration from Ryerson University, and a joint McMaster/Mohawk College diploma in nursing.

But Hatimy says her real passion is water security in Africa, a continent where she was born and raised in "extreme poverty." That's why she's earning a masters degree and a collaborative diploma with the United Nations Water Without Borders program.

Hatimy says she approached her program director last year about how to handle her medicinal marijuana on the Ghana trip. That led to her contacting the embassy, floating the idea of putting the marijuana in baked goods, and eventually looking into an alternative treatment plan. She also signed an affidavit absolving the university of any responsibility.

She says she was still working out an alternate treatment plan on Feb. 17, the day before she was supposed to leave, when McMaster gave her a letter from Wilkinson saying she couldn't go.

'Agitated and belligerent'

Wilkinson's letter said Hatimy was "agitated and belligerent" during a Feb. 16 meeting about why she couldn't take marijuana with her on the trip.

I'm advocating for policy change.- Halima Hatimy

The university provided "potential paths forward" for Hatimy, says spokesperson Gord Arbeau. But it wasn't working. 

"There were some challenges as we tried to explain the range of potential risks," Arbeau told CBC Hamilton in an email.

McMaster's priority is the safety of all its students, he said, "particularly when they are planning to travel to where the laws are different and assistance might be difficult to find."

'I'm advocating for policy change'

As a result, he said, the university decided to cancel Hatimy's involvement with the trip, Arbeau said, and find other ways for her to finish the course.

Hatimy disputes many of these details, including what she calls the "paternalistic and infantalizing" tone of the letter. She also says she called ahead to Wilkinson's office, then attended there with paperwork, and he refused to unlock the door.

Plus, she says, implying that she was at risk of smuggling marijuana into Ghana is discriminatory.

She's not even sure she can complete the program now. McMaster, she said, has "become a very hostile and poisoned environment for me."

After growing up in hardship and family trauma, she says, this was a way to go full circle.

"I'm advocating for policy change," she said. "It has far-reaching implications not just for McMaster University, but for universities across the country."

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC