U of T Prof Gets Pot-smoking Room
Doug Hutchinson marches briskly through Trinity College's cavernous basement hallway and stops in front of an unmarked door. "We're here," he says, key in hand. He pushes the door open, sits cross-legged on a small red area rug, and lights a joint. "I haven't decorated yet, but I do have an accent wall," says the UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO philosophy professor, pointing to the mustard-coloured wall in this sparsely-furnished room. "When I was asked what colour I wanted in my 'office,' I said, 'it's not my office, it's my pot-smoking room.' The painter asked, 'how do I get one?' "
Hutchinson, 51, won't reveal the ailment that gives him Health Canada's permission to smoke marijuana for medical reasons (and, as of last month, a school-sanctioned smoking room), but says he was diagnosed with it in 1995 and that it's not a Type-1 condition (like HIV). He does, however, need up to 10 joints a day for relief. "I smoke a spliff at the break in my three-hour class to restore my concentration and focus," he says. "I'm lower when I go back into class, not higher. And I have way better short-term memory. If you took one whiff of my spliff, you'd forget where your car is. It has a very different effect on the virgin head and the seasoned head." (His doctor backs Hutchinson's claim that the frequency of use makes him immune to the power of the bud.)
Hutchinson didn't get the go-ahead from Health Canada until last February, but has been smoking pot on campus for a few years - in his "official" second-floor office, but also while hiding out in tree branches and in a nearby garbage dumpster. "If I couldn't use this marijuana here I'd have to kill myself - either literally or professionally," he says, adding he's been "a pothead all my life - even when I was a Rhodes Scholar."
His smoking only became an issue last December, after several students complained to college officials that they could smell weed wafting from Hutchinson's office. Administration cracked down, says Hutchinson, because they had kicked a student out of residence for pot earlier in the year. Margaret MacMillan, Trinity's provost, refuses to discuss that alleged case. As for Hutchinson, she says the smoking room - formerly the North Piano Room - was determined the best way to accommodate his health need: "We hired a consultant to look at his office but it couldn't be outfitted to use for smoking - we're a heritage building so you can't just knock a hole in the wall and put a fan in."
The married father of two started using pot as a remedy in 1996. After getting weed from a trusted source for several years, Hutchinson discovered the benefits of medical-grade pot (including the "Snow White" strain) at a Toronto compassion club in 2004. He's since become something of a crusader on pot-related issues, protected he says by the Charter of Rights, not to mention his tenured position at the university. He still has a full teaching load, but since working on Plato: Complete Works - published in 1997 - his research slate has been "basically blank." Unfinished work - including the editing of Aristotle's ethics - has been set aside for now. "I'm very open to carry on my university research on marijuana," he says. "I'd rather do this than find a new lost work of Aristotle. Why? Because it's important to Canadians, right now."
Hutchinson says his struggle has been well-supported by students - although he smokes pot in their presence, he never lights up with them. ("I don't offer. They don't ask.") It has, however, strained relations with his peers. There's no hostility, but it's quite telling that most of the friends Hutchinson has made during 23 years at the university are former students. A one-time student, however, recently posted a critique of Hutchinson on the Internet, arguing that his pot smoking explains his teaching style: "One of the questions on our term test involved correlating Plato with an excerpt of lyrics from one of the prof's favourite reggae songs."
Hutchinson laughs it off, crediting the writing of Roman philosopher Seneca (the subject of one of his courses) with offering good anger-management advice. Still, he's frustrated, and defends his professionalism, and his teaching: "I feel massively angry that people have negative views of me based only on what goes into me and not a knowledge of what comes out of me."
Maclean's October 30, 2006