Sunday, May 03, 2015

Memo to Conservative Health Minister Rona Ambrose: Vancouver Pot Shops Need Sensible Regulation, Not Reefer Madness

Don Briere, owner of Weeds Glass and Gifts stores in Vancouver - Stefania Seccia photo - 24 Hours Vancouver 
Federal government lacks common sense on medical marijuana.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday April 28, 2015

By Bill Tieleman

"Once you legalize something, you normalize it. When you normalize it, the message is that it's safe and marijuana is not safe for young people."

- Conservative Health Minister Rona Ambrose

It's time to use common sense on the medicinal marijuana business that is growing wild in Vancouver -- not a dose of reefer madness.

Unfortunately, the federal Conservative government demands an ideological approach that ignores reality while trying to score political points with its right-wing base in an election year.

But even some Conservative voters can't be happy with this ham-handed approach to marijuana -- or Ambrose's obvious attempt to paint the opposition as drug fiends pushing dope to kids.

Fortunately, Vancouver council is taking a more sensible course by proposing regulations for the 80 medicinal marijuana dispensaries that have sprung up since the federal government in 2014 banned the cultivation of pot by patients with a prescription.

The proposed city regulations -- including a steep $30,000 annual licensing fee and staying at least 300 metres away from schools, community centres and other dispensaries -- ensure some reasonable level of responsibility instead of chaos.

The marijuana majority

The issue of decriminalization or legalization of marijuana is anathema to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives but an Angus Reid poll last year found 59 per cent of Canadians and 70 per cent of British Columbians backed legalization.

Even 43 per cent of Conservative voters agreed.

However, Ambrose doesn't care about the majority who favour ending the criminal prohibition on marijuana that has clearly failed to curb appetite for the drug -- whether for medicinal or recreational purposes.

"I would not support a Justin Trudeau Canada, where what's happening in downtown Vancouver [is repeated elsewhere] where pot dispensaries are opening up on corners. They are not regulated. Pot is illegal right now, unless you are through the medical marijuana program of Health Canada," Ambrose told CBC Radio host Stephen Quinn on Friday.

Tagging Liberal leader Trudeau (who supports legalization) or New Democrat leader Tom Mulcair (who backs decriminalization) as the problem insults voters' intelligence -- and their desire for a sensible solution.

And with both Washington State and Colorado recently voting to legalize marijuana, even a Conservative cabinet minister should be able to tell which way the weed wind is blowing.

In fact, federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay publicly suggested last August that the government might turn personal pot possession into a ticketed offence instead of a crime where even possession of less than 30 grams can lead to a six-month prison sentence.

And ironically given the easy access to medical marijuana in Vancouver, eight B.C. men have been ordered extradited to the United States to face serious marijuana smuggling charges for allegedly shipping hundreds of kilos to California.

So let's be blunt about blunts -- marijuana will be consumed by a significant portion of the Canadian population regardless of the laws.

And while it has demonstrable health benefits for some patients -- those suffering from cancer, glaucoma, nausea and other illnesses -- it can also be unhealthy, particularly when smoked or used in excess.

The obvious answer is to look at the facts, not fuel the fiction.

Dispensing evidence

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and CNN's chief medical correspondent, is one of those who has taken a second look at his opposition to medical marijuana and changed his mind.

"I mistakenly believed the Drug Enforcement Agency listed marijuana as a schedule one substance because of sound scientific proof. Surely, they must have quality reasoning as to why marijuana is in the category of the most dangerous drugs that have 'no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse,'" Sanjay wrote in 2013.

"They didn't have the science to support that claim, and I now know that when it comes to marijuana neither of those things are true. It doesn't have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications."

Sanjay remains opposed to young people having access to marijuana, citing studies that suggest early use can harm the brain.

But unlike Ambrose, Sanjay doesn't use that as a scare tactic for a total ban.

"We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that," Sanjay concluded.

In Washington State, Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation Friday that will regulate medical marijuana there, where recreational sales are already legal.

"Until today, our system has been completely unregulated," Inslee said. "Today, after tremendous hard work and compromise by legislators on both sides of the aisle, I signed a bill that will create a medical marijuana system that works for Washington."

So Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson's regulation solution -- in the absence of leadership from the Conservative government -- is both welcome and necessary.

Pretending the marijuana mess will vanish into thin air by either ignoring it or putting pot users in prison is far more delusional than you can get even by toking up.


Closing Vancouver's St. Paul's Hospital a Shortsighted Betrayal by BC Liberal Government

St. Paul's Hospital - The Tyee photo
BC Liberals backtrack on Premier Christy Clark promise to renovate historic downtown hospital.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday April 21, 2015

By Bill Tieleman

“We are going to be putting people's lives in harms' way."

- Aaron Jasper, former Save St. Paul's Hospital Coalition chair

Forget the spin that closing St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver's West End and opening a giant new facility in East Vancouver's False Creek flats is "world-leading."

It's actually an enormous error; an outright betrayal of BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark's 2012 promise to renovate St. Paul's; an expensive option costing taxpayers an extra $500 million more than a completely feasible retrofit; and a move that may compromise the health care of over 100,000 people living near the existing hospital.

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake already admits the new St. Paul's Hospital will "likely" be a controversial public-private-partnership development, which often wind up costing taxpayers more just to keep debt off government books.

And Providence Health Care, the non-profit that runs the site, will surely sell the property for an enormous and profitable multi-billion dollar condominium play.

Demolished for condos?

The St. Paul's land is assessed at $370 million already -- imagine how much it's worth full of the kind of high-rises that already
dominate the West End skyline.

Jasper, a former Vancouver Park Board chair, says it will likely lead to the closing of another Vancouver hospital, Mount St. Joseph's at Kingsway near East 12th Ave.

"I think Mount St. Joseph's will go," Jasper said in a Sunday interview with 24 Hours Vancouver.

Demolishing St. Paul's for condos will mean that the millions spent by taxpayers to extensively renovate the emergency room and new buildings, which opened in the 1980s and are all functioning, will have been wasted.

And the new hospital would be built on an earthquake-prone flood plain, not good when the big shaker finally hits Vancouver.

Amazingly, this is all being hyped as putting "the patient at the centre of care," according to Dianne Doyle, Providence Health Care president, in a news release.

Somehow I don't think patients -- or residents -- were consulted on this plan, because the consequences could be dire for those who depend on St. Paul's Hospital now.

The new site is three kilometres to the east of the current hospital: adding 35 minutes to a car trip from the West End; about 30 minutes to a transit ride and an extra 49 minutes if walking.

And for many Vancouver residents, their hospital of choice will switch from St. Paul's to an already overcrowded Vancouver General Hospital because it will be closer and easier to get to.

The BC Liberals promised to renovate St. Paul's prior to the 2013 provincial election, removing it as possible issue.

A February 2012 Providence Health Care Concept Plan concluded definitively: "The new-site option was ultimately rejected as too expensive."

Premier promises renovation

And in a June 13, 2012 government news release headlined: "Premier Clark Commits to Redeveloping St. Paul's Hospital," Clark laid it out clearly:

"I want patients and I want our health care professionals to know that they can have confidence in the great priority my government has put on redeveloping this hospital, modernizing it and bringing it into this new century. So that's why I'm so excited today to announce with a firm commitment that we are moving ahead on developing a concept plan for redevelopment of St. Paul's Hospital as part of our Budget 2012," Clark said in an online government video:

Then-health minister Mike de Jong chimed in on video: "An exciting day here at St. Paul's when Premier Clark arrives to really formalize the commitment to get on with the redevelopment of the hospital here."

Those promises led to the Save St. Paul's Hospital Coalition disbanding, says Jasper, because they thought: "Hey, we won!"

And then-B.C. health minister Margaret MacDiarmid gave more reassurances in February 2013 on the election eve: "St. Paul's Hospital is world-renowned for its research, teaching and care. We're making sure it remains a hub of innovation, excellence and compassionate patient care, serving British Columbian families far into the future," MacDiarmid said.

But that was then and this is now, and Clark has yet to comment on her broken promise, instead letting others praise the plan.

That hasn't yet included the city of Vancouver, which the B.C. government surprised with the announcement. It's telling because Vancouver will have to deal with the consequences but wasn't consulted on the decision.

Former BC Liberal attorney general Geoff Plant, now chair of Providence's board of directors was effusive.

"Health care has to trump nostalgia," he claimed, as if this was merely a case of a heritage building standing in the way of progress.

In fact, Clark's brazen broken pledge is about privatization and profits coming before patients and promises.

To be clear, a new, larger hospital has benefits and many good people support the plan, despite the distance and higher costs.

But Jasper, now a realtor, says it's all about location, location, location.

"We're encouraging people to live downtown -- so shouldn't we have at least some significant level of emergency and acute care services?"

Saving St. Paul's Hospital in its existing location may never be more important.


Monday, April 27, 2015

Time for Senator Mike Duffy to Seek a Guilty Plea Bargain?

Mike Duffy 
It worked for Basi and Virk, sparing the BC political duo jail time in BC Rail corruption case

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday April 14, 2015

By Bill Tieleman

"In a closed society where everybody's guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity."

A long-awaited political corruption trial promises bombshell disclosures: Cabinet ministers and the leader's chief of staff will testify; the government fears election-changing damage; the accused profess innocence; and it's all followed by a shocking guilty plea bargain cutting the trial dramatically short.

The case of Senator Mike Duffy?

Sounds very familiar, but this is actually the British Columbia Legislature raid case in 2010, where two accused ministerial aides charged with corruption, repeatedly denied wrongdoing but eventually took a guilty plea bargain that kept them out of jail -- and off the hook for an astonishing $6 million in legal fees over seven years.

And make no mistake, it could happen in the Duffy case, based on my seven years covering the B.C. Legislature raid in court and beyond for The Tyee.

Dave Basi and Bob Virk were BC Liberal government ministerial aides who triggered an unprecedented police raid on the B.C. Legislature over allegations they provided inside information on the $1 billion privatization sale of BC Rail to one of the bidders.

Bill Tieleman interviews Dave Basi outside court

Years of pre-trial motions and hearings produced enough bombshells based on wiretaps, disclosed emails and other evidence to guarantee a riveting trial. It would have been devastating for the BC Liberals, with 40 witnesses expected in a multi-month series of tough cross-examinations.

Plea bargain

But after just two witnesses, one of them Martyn Brown, former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell's chief of staff -- the defence and prosecution suddenly announced a plea bargain that saw Basi and Virk admit guilt they had denied for seven years in exchange for probation sentences and no repayment of a taxpayer-funded legal defence, which cost $6 million.

That deal shocked B.C., particularly since political aides' legal bills are only indemnified if they are found innocent, not guilty, and raised enormous anger about how it conveniently ended a trial guaranteed to badly damage the BC Liberals regardless of the outcome.

Elected cabinet ministers, government officials, prosecution and defence all denied any political interference. But the trial was over.

Now it could happen again with Duffy, whose "diaries" and other evidence are exposing the embarrassing inner workings of the Conservative government just as Basi and Virk did with the BC Liberals.

Why a guilty plea? Duffy faces 31 charges of breach of trust, fraud and bribery, the same Criminal Code offences Basi and Virk were accused of -- and conviction would be equally devastating.

Despite Duffy's bluster, he is a 68-year-old man with heart and health problems. Would anyone want to risk dying in jail in his remaining years?

And his financial situation is ruinous even before trial -- suspended as a senator, without income and little chance of earning a living in journalism or politics even if found innocent, let alone if convicted.

So Duffy's skillful lawyer Donald Bayne is maximizing the impact of every day in this trial, and Bayne knows that the odds of being offered a plea bargain increase significantly as media attention and political pressure build while he offers plausible reasons for acquittal.

None of this is to suggest any wrongdoing by the Conservative government -- simply that the prosecution's goal is a conviction and a plea bargain guarantees it, while a judge's decision on guilt or innocence after much testimony is the great unknown.

Basi and Virk had exceptional defence lawyers in Michael Bolton and Kevin McCullough who did their utmost to exonerate the pair for years and then negotiated the best possible terms in exchange for a guilty plea. Duffy's lawyer Bayne is so far following a very similar course in court, introducing dramatic evidence, exhaustive cross-examination and raising doubts at every turn about the prosecution's case.

Mike Duffy may face a full trial and the Conservatives the full negative impact of vigorous and damning defence testimony and evidence. The verdict is unknown.

But it would be foolish not to think that a guilty plea bargain by Duffy in exchange for leniency is a very probable outcome -- and one that would be welcomed by both the accused and a Conservative Party facing an election in October.