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Coe Hill, Ontario - Ninety minutes north of Peterborough, is a hamlet. It's not big enough to be a village. Its one main street houses a small grocery store, gas station, post office, restaurant and Dr. Robert Kamermans's medical clinic, which is noteworthy for the fact that for a brief time it was the centre of the medical marijuana movement in Canada. Before the cops showed up, that is.
When the clinic started getting busy, the locals knew what was going on; everyone chatted with the patients in the café. They shared tables and stories. No one had a problem with the fact that the good doctor was prescribing marijuana.
The township council, in fact, happily passed a motion to send a letter of support for the doctor to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.
Kamermans was helping sick people who would otherwise not have access to the federal government's medpot program, for which you need a prescription to get the medicine. He was helping people no one else wanted to help, and that's just how things were in Coe Hill.
On clinic days, the traffic would pick up and it would feel like a busy Friday night during cottage season. Weary travellers in wheelchairs, some with walking sticks, would be lined up around Kamermans's office. They came from all over Ontario. Occasionally they would stroll through town or down to the public beach to relax before seeing the doctor and his wife, Mary, a registered nurse.
Many looking for help were without cars, and since no buses or trains run through Coe Hill, Kamermans started operating mobile medical clinics. He would see groups of patients in Toronto, Hamilton and other larger urban centres over the course of a few days. His travels took him as far as New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Montreal.
"It was hard work, but it made sense to go to where the patients were," Kamermans says.
Thanks to the connectedness of the Canadian medical marijuana community - and some great online reviews from patients - the doctor's name and his belief in supporting access to the medication went viral. More staff had to be hired to keep up with the number of calls. Eventually his office employed eight people.
By the end of 2011, the doctor had written 4,000 prescriptions for patients. Patients who visited Coe Hill paid $100 for the paperwork needed to support access to medical marijuana. Kamermans billed OHIP his regular fee for a standard patient visit on top of that. He charged $250 at mobile clinics to cover his travel costs, he says.
Kamermans says the patients who came to him couldn't afford to buy pot on the street or from other sources. Many said they'd been turned down by their own family physicians, who still viewed marijuana as illegal.
"This wasn't about the money. It was about responding to the patients' needs," says Kamermans.
The cops, however, didn't see it that way. Kamermans became the target of a massive police sting operation.
The Organized Crime Enforcement Bureau (OCEB), with the help of the Ontario Provincial Police's Anti-Rackets Branch, Health Fraud Investigation Unit and the RCMP, launched Project Thorne in November of 2011.
The focus was on fraud and forged medical forms in relation to Health Canada's medicinal marijuana program. Law enforcement claimed that criminals were using Health Canada permits to grow their own for the black market.
After two months of surveillance, some 20 officers from the OPP and RCMP showed up at Coe Hill on January 26, 2012, when the doctor was getting ready for a busy clinic day.
The search warrant they produced suggested there were illegal drugs on the premises and that Kamermans had been involved in trafficking. The doctor was handcuffed. The OPP said it was for their protection. He was brought outside, photographed in restraints and called a drug dealer. His patients' charts were removed. Kamermans was held in a cell and spent hours being questioned before he was released without charges.
Those would not be laid until six months later, while Kamermans was working in the emergency room of a tiny rural hospital in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario. Taking the doctor away mid-shift left an entire community without a functioning ER.
Kamermans was charged with three counts of fraud, five counts of uttering forged documents, possession of property obtained by crime, and laundering the proceeds of the crime. His wife faces the same charges but with one less count for uttering forged documents.
Meanwhile, the College of Physicians and Surgeons had launched its own investigation after a physician complained in the fall of 2011 that Kamermans had prescribed her patient pot. In May of this year, the College ruled that Kamermans could not sign for cannabis. He had not signed since January of 2012 because of the police investigation.
The police are remaining tight-lipped about the investigation as the case wends its way through court. A preliminary hearing is set to begin in October. But in an interview after Kamermans's arrest, the then-head of the Bancroft OPP detachment, Staff Sergeant Dan Rajsic, was clear. "If you deal drugs you have to expect to deal with the police," he said.
"The practice was transparent," Kamermans says.
Ryan, who doesn't want his last name used, is a patient of Kamermans. He runs his own business and is raising a family. He suffers from multiple sclerosis.
When he heard that medical marijuana could help, he went to his family doctor. He was turned down.
"He wouldn't help," Ryan says. "And then I found the Kamermans, and they were compassionate and caring, listened to all of my concerns and approved me. I started feeling better. I have two young kids. Now I have an appetite and can sleep, and the horrible pain is under control.
"I am not depressed like I was," Ryan said. "This is a great doctor. He's sitting there all alone having to deal with this crap. He's the one who gets the negative publicity and has to risk everything. This is allowed by Health Canada, but the police are making this hard for him and hard for us."
Kamermans says he still doesn't understand the charges. He's also had a tough time working with his patients since all their charts were seized. He now refers his patients to other doctors, some of whom charge hundreds more to sign medpot forms. The Health Canada program has also been going through significant changes, adding more barriers for those most in need.
At the same time, more and more physicians are recognizing the benefits of marijuana and signing the forms. At the end of January 2012, when Kamermans stopped prescribing, there were 13,781 Canadians authorized to possess dried marijuana. By the end of December 2012, that number had grown to 28,115.
"This is both disappointing and ridiculous," Kamermans says of his ordeal. "The people who came to us did not want to go to the black market. This program was supposed to make the black market smaller, and that's a good thing, right?"
Barbara Shaw is a freelance writer based in Coe Hill, Ontario.