The guards don’t run this crazy place. The Don seems to run itself.
NOW writer and med pot activist Matt Mernagh, who suffers from fibromyalgia, scoliosis and arthritic pain, was arrested August 16 with 37 plants and charged with possession of marijuana, possession for the purposes of trafficking and production of marijuana. The trial date has not been set. The following is an account of his 13 days in the Don Jail.
After years of reporting on drug war horror stories, I've finally become one myself. Busted, evicted from my apartment and missing my ferrets, I'm now an unwilling resident of the Don Jail. And the worst part of all is that the government has taken away my medicine.
Instead of the pot that has kept excruciating pain and sadness at bay for 10 years, I am met twice daily by a nurse and a guard who roll by with a pharma cart to dole me out legal drugs. They watch closely to make sure I pop their prescriptions - but they sure aren't available when the side effects come.
And there are plenty. The heavy doses of opiates and antidepressants wreck my appetite and thought processes - I'm too drugged even to remember phone numbers - and throw my body out of whack. The surreal setting of the Don is no place to enjoy a drug-induced freak-out.
Despite the fact that I'm a compassion club user with a doctor's note detailing my condition, the herb alternative to stomach-turning, mind-stunning opiates isn't legal for me. Or for 5,000 other med pot patients roaming city - leaving them vulnerable to my fate, too. Only 2,000 people across the country have been able to score a Health Canada exemption.
Friends and family observing me at near-daily court appearances scarily watch me slowly descend into sickness. Will someone please adjust my dosages? Officials push pills at me, but it's inmates who are actually monitoring my health. Like Paul, a native peer counsellor battling his own drinking demons, who listens to my mind-addled woes and keeps reminding me, "You gotta keep eating, brother."
But while some fellow prisoners are critical to my survival, others keep the fear quotient perpetually high. Going to and from bail court for example, is an inherently dangerous exercise. At these moments, inmates from different ranges mingle in tight confines, waiting to be chain-ganged and loaded onto the van.
I'm strip-searched several times in this area, sometimes full routine. "Shake your hair, lift your scrotum, turn and spread your cheeks, squat and cough." Guards seem to amuse themselves with wisecracks verging on harassment as they look at dicks and assholes. I'm very skinny - and standing there naked, I hear one of them ask, "Have I seen you working on Church and Wellesley?"
"Sure you're not a faggot?" he persists.
The strange thing I realize is that even the guards don't run this place. It seems to run itself. During another body search, one of them asks: "Did I see you on the CBC last night in their marijuana movie?" referring to a documentary about the Prince of Pot.
"Yup, that's me!" I brighten. A second guard barks, "When are you going to make it legal?" Hmm, I want to answer, maybe when I stop getting busted.
I'm supposed to be dressed in respectable clothing for bail hearings, but my friends can't get my duds together in time for my first hearing and I end up pimp-rolling to my bail appearances, decked out in the Don's orange jumpsuit, looking guilty or incredibly stylish, depending on your taste.
Pot activist Dame Ophelia Bottom eyes me in court, throwing me that "I want that jumpsuit" look. It opens from the tits to the crotch and is a natural burlesque costume in its unique way. Inmates figure the Don apparel would fetch 2 grand on eBay.
On the way back from court the next time round, I barely hold back claustrophobia while sharing the tiny cubbyhole in the van with a mentally ill crack addict. It would certainly be easy to lose your sanity in this confined space. Despite the meds making me wobbly, I force myself not to slide around; a little bump can be taken as a serious slight.
Suddenly, the addict bashes his head against the vehicle's wall, screaming, "I'm going to kill myself." His blood seeps onto my street clothing. I'm dressed properly this time, in a $60 Ben Sherman short-sleeved shirt and Gap pants.
I start to lose it and find myself cursing him to calmness. "Don't you fucking bleed on me." He stops the headbanging and begins to sob.
When I'm unloaded, my bloodied clothes get stashed, never to be worn again. My new hemp shoes are returned mouldy. I chuck those, too.
Later, I hear that the addict has made a makeshift noose by tearing a strip off his own clothing. It happens again two days later, but this time I catch sight of the happenings down the hall in the basement of Old City Hall while I'm having my bail papers processed and he's waiting for a mental health assessment hearing.
Guess no one told the man, or maybe they did, there's a scarcity of services for the mentally ill in this city - which is why sometimes all that's available is the "bug range" at the Don.
Another day, in the holding area crammed with others, a big, bearded fellow with a brown envelope stuffed with old tax returns, coffee, sugar and tea storms in and begins mocking the addict. "I'll introduce you to a beautiful Lebanese blond when I get you released," he tells him.
‘No, I don't want blond!" the addict cries. The intensity sharpens quickly. Not good, because there's an angel here. A Hells Angel. Am I the only one who noticed there's a full patch here? With his arms crossed, he begins: "Why are you asking so many fucking questions?"
"What's your problem?" Brown Enevelope demands. "You!" answers the Angel. I move mouse-like to the corner. They're going to scrap.
Angels have breaking points, and his is approaching. Then, miraculously, two range-mates of Brown Envelope enter our cell. They embrace and go over old times before reverting to mocking the room. But before any blows can be swung, someone asks the Angel if they can see his tattoo. He slowly flashes the room his Iron Cross. Everyone chills out.
The holding cell is also where I learned about jimmying National Post boxes. "It's the only one you can do easily," says an expert. "I knock off three or four a day. They got $40 to $100 in them usually." The crack-addicted fellow was caught with the change scattered all over the sidewalk.
Even in my sleeping quarters, I can't shake a sense of foreboding. I share the space with two others and bed down on a hard rubber wrestling mat bed I store under the bottom-most bunk. At 104 pounds, I'm worried about being jumped at night, but thankfully my roomies have found humour in my size and have a standing joke about my being the troll under the bed. As long as they're howling, I figure I'm safe.
After 12 nights I get bail, and my surety family put me up in their front room. Technically, I guess, I meet the definition of a homeless person. I've also graduated from a round of post-prison stress counselling and am struggling to cope with symptoms of fear, anger and - oddly - shame.
Sometime next spring, I'll come up for trial on lesser marijuana production charges arising from an April arrest in Niagara; my Toronto court showdown is further into the future. We are turning the Niagara trial into a constitutional challenge, arguing that Health Canada is interfering between a patient and his doctor in demanding control over marijuana prescriptions and supply. Shades of the Morgentaler case.
People ask, "What was it like living in the Don." And I answer, "You know how Rocky 1 felt during the big fight? That's how it was for me." Next round is the trials.