Sam Mellace says his ideas about harm reduction were inspired by late NDP leader Jack Layton.
At the recently opened New Age Medical Clinic on the Danforth near Pape, the paint job is still noticeably fresh.
Walking into the not-quite-a-medpot-facility billed as an "alternate care" provider, the first thing a prospective patient sees, enshrined on a waiting-room wall, is a large candlelit portrait of late NDP leader Jack Layton, purportedly the person who inspired the operation.
The idea here is to provide pain treatment while preventing addiction free from reliance on dangerous pharmaceuticals. And it's on this subject that founder Sam Mellace, an expert grower and student of the healing powers of cannabis, really opens up.
Imagine a scenario, he says, in which parents are taking the worst prescription drugs available - sleeping pills, Tylenol 3, opiates, OxyContin, the list goes on.
"Kids come home, grab [a pill] out of the medicine cabinet and the next day another one. Then they tell their buddies." It's these chemicals, not THC or cannabinoids, he maintains, that constitute the first career drugs in the worst cases.
"Marijuana is not the gateway, because it's not addictive," he says. "The pharmaceuticals are addictive, so when the doctor wants to cut you off, you've still got that monkey on your back.
"Young people - or anyone with addictions triggered or compounded by medical treatment - are discovering this the hard way," he says.
Mellace says he wants to restore the personal, traditional care of the family doctor.
And while pot won't be provided at this point - there's no showing your papers and walking out with a potent, Health Canada-approved stash - the facility will offer treatments using legal cannabinoids (the naturally occurring chemical compounds found in marijuana that activate the body's cannabinoid receptors) in the form of tinctures and cookies.
Cannabinoids have been proven to alleviate a range of ailments, including the pain for which opiates are often prescribed, but they don't get you "high" because they lack tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. It's through this loophole that Mellace avoids being termed a marijuana dispensary per se.
"We have endocannabinoids in our bodies naturally as part of our body's self-defence mechanism," says Mellace. "We have receptors naturally. The one thing we do not produce is the psychoactive THC."
The clinic offers a range of other services: blood work, X-rays, ultrasound, harm reduction and family medicine. And besides treating the body, its staff will address the systemic gaps left by a Canadian Medical Association unwilling to train doctors in the health properties of cannabis. Along with counselling and intervention services, the clinic will train care providers and assist patients in getting their Marihuana Medical Access licence.
Mellace is only too aware of the intransigence of Canadian authorities: some 28,000 people have been able to get their doctors to prescribe medpot legally under the current system. Currently, Health Canada is getting out of administering the medical marijuana program and deciding how to license legal producers - meaning this clinic may have another function some time in the future.
But progress grinds forward at an agonizingly slow pace, and meanwhile people are hurting, Mellace says, particularly with the over-prescribing of medications like Oxycontin. The job of medical authorities, he argues, is to alleviate patients' pain without leaving them with life-derailing addictions; to "do no harm" the ethical root of modern medicine.
"Now," he says, "they're getting people addicted, ruining their liver, ruining their kidneys, stomach lining, bowels. Their whole life changes."