Meet the Man Who Almost Made Weed Legal in Canada
Matt Mernagh came closer than anyone ever has to destroying the restrictive medical marijuana program in Canada.
Matt Mernagh: bong user and weed crusader.
In 2011, Matt Mernagh gave the Canadian government a golden opportunity: lie down and legalize marijuana. It all started in 2008, when Matt was caught growing his own weed to treat his seizures, scoliosis, and a chronic pain condition called fibromyalgia.
After three years of constant court battles, Matt and his lawyer Paul Lewin successfully launched a constitutional challenge that argued the medical marijuana program our trusty Canadian government was running at the time had far too many barriers for entry, and was not actually helping the sick people who needed it. They won, in the lower courts, and the federal government was given 30 days to respond.
To Superior Court Judge Donald Taliano, Matt Mernagh’s case was indicative of a “massive boycott” by Canadian doctors of the medical marijuana program. The Crown disagreed, and one of their attorneys, Croft Michaelson, told the Appeal court in 2012 that: “[Those findings were] extravagant and wholly unsupported by the record.”
Unsurprisingly, the government smashed Matt’s victory in the lower courts as if his verdict was a watermelon, and the Crown was Gallagher obnoxiously swinging a mallet. Medical marijuana restrictions have loosened a bit since Matt’s adventures through legal purgatory began—but even so, too much red tape has been wrapped around a sick Canadian’s right to grow a plant and smoke it or make butter with it or photograph it for High Times.
Matt’s final court date is coming up in October, so I gave him a call to chat with him about his pot crusade against the federal government.
VICE:How did you get into medical marijuana in the first place?
Matt Mernagh: I started smoking cannabis in college because I had chronic pain issues. I joined a club in 1997 to get into a medical marijuana clinic. I was happy at that point in my life—I was getting marijuana, I was working. And then they got raided. Like, right out of the blue one day. I would go there once a week and buy my medicine, and it would help my health so much that I kind of took it for granted. When they got raided, I felt powerless.
I didn't quite know what to do. I called Now, and I started writing for them. I wrote an article about weed, about being a member of this club that just got raided by the police—and then I [got into marijuana activism]. I showed up at a couple of rallies, and it wasn't until about 2005 when I met my friend Chris Goodwin that the two of us [until this very day] are doing everything we can to fight the law. Like, everything possible.
We do rallies, we've done smoke outs, we do the big ones on April 20th. We've organized rallies across Canada. I realized that I could contribute quite a bit. And then—jeez. I got arrested a couple of times, but they kept withdrawing my charge because I couldn't get into the medical marijuana program.
What happened when you got arrested for that one crucial time that launched you into this massive legal battle?
The smoke detector went off in my apartment and my landlord was concerned for my health, [laughs] so he called the cops and they went in to see if I was dead. And they found the grow! My landlord turned to the cops and said: "I think this is legal." And all this came out in the pre-trial. It's so hilarious. They discovered that it wasn't legal, and issued a warrant to go back into the house.
I never [tried to say] it wasn't mine. They had me on video, after sleeping in a prison cell all night, gladly talking to them about, like, "Hey, this type of marijuana helps me wake up in morning, this marijuana helps me sleep at night." And the cops were just completely flabbergasted and fascinated that this guy's here, talking to them like: "Hey, I'm growing this for myself."
It should have been a slam dunk for the Crown. I should have been found guilty right away. But I hired a good lawyer, his name's Paul Lewin, he's a marijuana advocate.
I got pinched a second time that summer, where I got hauled off to the Don Jail. I used Paul Lewin to really clean up all that mess. And Lewin and I agreed, right then and there, when I was sleeping in the Don… he's like, "we're gonna fight them all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada."
Matt Mernagh at a weed rally with a giant plant.
Did you believe him at the time?
I honestly believed him. Nobody else did, but I had nothing else. The police took everything I owned. They killed two of my pets.
I had two ferrets. One died in the vet—he was just terrorized, and the other guy was just, they're very affectionate to each other, he just died of a broken heart. And it was like, within weeks. Like really, within, like, weeks, of me being raided. I had nothing, I was sleeping on my buddy's couch. So then Lewin was just like, "This is what we're gonna do," and I was like, fuck, let's do this. They totally ruined me. I had to go and put my whole life back together, while going to court every month.
I knew a lot of medical marijuana people. I knew that I was not the only one. I knew there were more people like me facing this issue—and we were able to find 22 witnesses.
One of our biggest goals has always been to prove that the government program is an illusion, so using social media and [contacting people I already knew, I built a list]. It's an unbelievable documentation of medical marijuana in Canada.
What were you looking to document, exactly?
We were looking for statistics specifically on where people were getting access to medical marijuana. We would look at Manitoba, for example, and [the government] would tell us how many medical marijuana users are there. No names—we just got a number. For the province of Manitoba, we can literally circle it and conclude that it’s just Winnipeg—there is no medical marijuana elsewhere in the province. Even if you lived somewhere else in the province of Manitoba, you'd have to go into Winnipeg to get medical marijuana. And so our goal was simply to find people in these provinces that can confirm their stories. Like, "did you travel, or did you have to travel to see doctors for facilities? What's the wait like?"
So you were essentially trying to argue that the program wasn't very useful because rural Canadians weren’t getting access?
Right, and people like myself were getting arrested.
Did you personally make an attempt to join the medical program?
Oh yeah, for sure. I was able to testify to it. I saw numerous doctors. In fact, one doctor wrote a letter saying he knew that I was using medical marijuana. I made several efforts, right up until, jeez, the middle of June. I was making an application with my family doctor and I still couldn't find someone else to sign off on. So yes, I think that's what people were confused about—I made a lot of effort to get into this program, and our witnesses did too. Our 22 witnesses went to a combined 113 doctors visits.
And all of those people were rejected from the program?
All were rejected. We had a witness that testified to seeing about 20 doctors. And she fully qualified. She had an illness that fully qualified for this service program.
Crazy. So how did you feel once you finally won in the lower court?
It was the best day of my life, ever. We weren't doing media or anything. We did it quietly. One day in February my lawyer called and told me I actually won an exception from the marijuana law. My knees buckled—the judges granted me a court exemption to grow and possess my own marijuana, and it gave the government 90 days to respond to these allegations that basically no doctors were participating in this program.
And then it got unravelled…
Oh man, yeah, at the Court of Appeal, the Crown changed lawyers at the time, and it got unravelled. They argued a very technical legal case, and they basically told me what I did wrong.
Matt Mernagh with the President of Toronto.
What would it have meant for Canada if the original legal decision stuck?
If the first decision stuck marijuana would have been legal. You would have been able to grow marijuana. There's no way the feds would have been able to create a new program in 90 days.
How did you feel when you realized that you had gone from potentially destroying the existing medical marijuana program to being back at square one?
Man, I was devastated. It wasn't until the Supreme Court ruling came in and they dismissed it that I really sort of broke down and lost it. I trashed the stage at Vapor Central [laughs]. It was very unbecoming of me but, still, it falls in line with my rock star spirit [laughs]. I'm still devastated. It’s like losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup. I wanted to go back-to-back. It felt horrible.
I can imagine. Do you have any legal permission to smoke weed now?
Well, no, I don't. I'm actually back to square one 100 percent, doing what I usually do. I'm in the new medical marijuana program [and I will be patient #1]. Even though we lost, the government greatly reduced [the barriers to apply for the program]. They tried to make it easier on doctors. I’m not sure if it’s going to work, but I remain hopeful. They changed how doctors can do it, so my family doctor was easily able to fill out the form. And I'm hoping that other doctors follow suit.
You don't even need an illness anymore. I intend to use seven grams a day. That's all your doctor needs to say. The doctor just wrote [my permission form] on his letterhead.
And how quickly after he sent that letter did you get the go-ahead to get stoned legally?
Well you don't get permission from [the government] anymore. Health Canada is completely out of the picture now. I can take that document and buy from a licensed provider.
Where are the licensed providers?
There’snobody licensed yet [laughs]. They’re phasing out the new program, and as of September 30th of this year, they have to stop accepting that old application and change over to that new system.
So what’s wrong with the new program, then?
In the new program we lose our opportunity to grow.
That’s a big problem.
Yes. It's huge. I'm stuck. I don't want to say this new program is way better.
Because obviously you depend on very particular strains, right?
Yeah, I depend on their love and support, man. That's what my book is about. I love growing.
Well I guess this is somewhat of a step forward.
Yeah, it's a step forward, we're moving, and who knows, in another two years time, if it's not working, Lewin and I both agreed… we may ride again.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire
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