Responding to a clarion call from the Canadian courts, the Canadian health ministry, known as Health Canada, has issued regulations that will make Canada the first country in the world to create a government-regulated system for using marijuana as medicine. Health minister Allan Rock unveiled the new regulations at a press conference last Friday.
"Canada is acting compassionately by allowing people who are suffering from grave and debilitating illnesses to have access to marijuana for medical purposes," Rock told the Ottawa press conference. (Two years ago, Rock admitted to having used marijuana himself as a student, but "not medically," he said.)
Health Canada acted in response to the case of an Ontario epileptic who claimed the right to grow and smoke marijuana for medical purposes. The Ontario Supreme Court last year agreed and gave the government until July 31st to rewrite its medical marijuana statutes or see the marijuana laws thrown out altogether. Patients had to choose between "health and imprisonment," the court said.
Under a program in place since 1999, Health Canada allowed a small number of patients using marijuana to claim a special exemption from laws banning its use. Some 220 Canadians have received exemptions, but the Ontario court held that the program did not adequately address the needs of medical marijuana patients. It ordered the government to clarify who could apply for such an exemption.
The new regulations create three categories of patients, with different rules for each. Those expected to die within a year would have the easiest access to medical marijuana. A second group includes those who suffer from severe pain or other symptoms from a list of specified diseases, including cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and arthritis. These patients will have to get a statement from a doctor saying conventional treatments have been ineffective.
A third group, those whose medical conditions are not explicitly covered by the Health Canada regulations, would still be able to obtain medical marijuana, but would have to obtain statements of need from two doctors.
They also remove restrictions on the amount of marijuana patients can possess and allow patients to grow their own or have a designated grower. To avoid the "compassion club" phenomenon, however, designated growers will not be allowed to grow for more than three patients.
The measure appears decidedly uncontroversial in Canada, where even the social conservative Canadian Alliance party lauds the regulations. "When people are seriously ill and in severe pain, we would support anything that would relieve their pain," Alliance member Diane Ablonczy told the press conference.
Assistant Deputy Health Minister Dann Michols acknowledged that the US government had serious questions about the program, and diplomatically told the press conference, "It's difficult to say they're right, we're wrong, or vice versa." But for many Canadians, the official line from the US is little more than junk science. Jim McNulty, writing in the British Columbia alternative weekly the Province and unconstrained by diplomatic protocol, proclaimed, "Canada, an obedient servant of the US, has gone along with this guff to pacify southern graduates from the Reefer Madness school of quackery."
Now, Canada has taken a significant step out from behind the shadow of its drug fighting southern neighbor. Not far enough, though, say some medical marijuana patients.
Barry Burkeholder of Sudbury, Ontario, who suffers from Hepatitis C, told Canada Press the rules were unnecessarily bureaucratic. "It's probably another tactic for them to put some red tape in," he said. He also said patients could have problems finding doctors to support their applications. "We've got to get some information to the doctors, too."
Expressing similar concerns, Calgary pot crusader Grant Krieger called the regulations "a whitewash."
"They're setting up their own racket with no benefit except a waste of taxpayers' money," he told the Calgary Herald.
Such complaints could be rendered moot as the Supreme Court prepares to hear cases from British Columbia and Ontario challenging the constitutionality of the laws against recreational marijuana use.
John Conroy, the attorney who will argue the Supreme Court case next year, noted that in the BC and Ontario cases, even though judges upheld the marijuana laws, they "accepted that the possession and use of marijuana does not pose a significant, substantial, or serious risk to the public." He told the Province that the case is a Charter of Rights challenge to "the constitutionality of this kind of prohibition."