Canadian Health Minister Anne McLellan used an address before the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) on Monday to publicly declare what many medical marijuana advocates had suspected for months: that the Canadian federal government will not implement a medical marijuana distribution system approved by former Health Minister Alan Rock. McClellan told the CMA, which is officially hostile to medical marijuana, that she is "uncomfortable" with people smoking anything and that Ottawa will not distribute medical marijuana until clinical trials have been completed. No such trials are underway, and McLellan did not indicate whether Health Canada had any firm plans to begin them.
"Nothing has really changed," said Rielle Capler, a spokesperson for Canada's largest medical marijuana dispensary, the BC Compassion Club Society (http://www.thecompassionclub.org) in Vancouver. "The government and the doctors are just making it publicly clear that they don't want to be involved. There are a lot of Canadians whose discomfort from illness is greater than Ann McLellan's discomfort, and the only difference now is that they feel disappointed and undermined by their own government," she told DRCNet. "They were hoping their medicine would be acknowledged and they wouldn't have to feel like criminals."
"I don't think the government's position has really changed, said Brian Taylor, long-time British Columbia marijuana activist and executive director of the Cannabis Research Institute (http://www.cannabisresearchinstituteinc.com), a medical marijuana growing system provider. "Health Canada has always been uncomfortable with supplying patients and didn't want to get involved in research," he told DRCNet. "To me, this indicates that Health Canada is opening the door to provincial control. The provinces need to get up off their asses and look at running this as a public service."
Health Canada was poised to enter the medical marijuana business in the wake of a 2000 Ontario Court of Appeals ruling giving the government one year to amend the law making it a crime for sick people to possess marijuana. Rather than the appeal the ruling, the Canadian Health Ministry under Rock took steps to implement a medical marijuana program, crafting regulations to permit qualified patients to obtain it, as well as providing a supply through a government-contracted grow op in Flin Flon, Manitoba. The Canadian government has already paid $4 million dollars to Prairie Plant Systems to grow the medicinal marijuana and received its first crop months ago, but had dithered ever since. Canada is contractually obligated to pay for 400 kilograms of marijuana from Flin Flon each year for the next four years.
According to Health Canada, at least 806 patients have qualified under the Health Ministry regulatory process so far. But those patients are caught in a legal twilight zone where it is legal to use medical marijuana but illegal to buy it.
Too bad, McLellan told the assembled doctors on Monday. "I understand the issues that we in this room have and feel in relation to the lack of scientific evidence, possible liability issues, and the fact that the federal Department of Health does find itself in the slightly ironic position when I am responsible for the single largest campaign of the federal government -- the anti-smoking campaign," she said.
"I don't mean to say that the courts made me do it or made Rock do it, although there is some truth to that. The courts took us down a certain path," she said, adding she hoped the Canadian Supreme Court would provide direction. "I hope this whole issue gets before the Supreme Court of Canada fairly soon so we will have the opportunity to reargue this case before the Supreme Court so we can get some clarity about what is happening here," she said.
The only problem with that statement is that there is no medical marijuana case headed for the Supreme Court. "The federal Department of Justice made a decision not to appeal to the Supreme Court at that time, said Toronto attorney Alan Young, adding that McLellan should know that since she was Justice Minister at the time. McLellan was being either "confused, or she's being very disingenuous," Young told the Toronto Globe & Mail.
McLellan added that she is "not insensitive to those who feel it helps in their final days or acute illness situations," but said that she owed it to Canadians to ensure that medicines were tested safe and effective.
The BC Compassion Club Society's Capler wasn't buying that. "The government -- and the doctors -- should acknowledge that cannabis is an herb and doesn't need the same rigorous testing as pharmaceutical products," she said. "Cannabis should be treated as the natural remedy it is. We offer organic, high quality cannabis to our patients and we would like to see standards for safety and quality, but those trials are unnecessary. What Canadians need is a legal supply of medicinal cannabis now."
While compassion clubs such as Capler's exist across Canada, they are illegal and exist "at the mercy of local authorities," she said, citing the Victoria compassion club that was raided last year. And just last week, Toronto police raided the Toronto Compassion Centre, seizing the medicine for 1,200 patients and hauling the staff off to jail, according to an urgent alert issued by the center on August 14.
"The compassion clubs are not legal," said Capler, "but they could be given legal status. Goodness knows there are plenty of growers in Canada who could supply us."
CRI's Taylor foresees exactly that happening in his home territory. "BC is perfectly situated to make medical cannabis a provincial industry," he said. "The federal government is hypersensitive about the issue of federalism out west, and this is certainly a western issue. A lot of people in the provincial government are supportive," he continued. "And BC is already marijuana dependent. We have any number of communities that officially show income levels that are disproportionately low by provincial standards, but what those figures don't reflect is that these families are using marijuana as a cash crop," he said.
"We could simply supply medical marijuana users at first," Taylor added. "We have thousands of medical users with no legal supply. Here in BC we could promote this like the wine industry, buy it at the farm gate. Then we'll move on to recreational marijuana; we're rapidly heading in that direction. With that, we can expect toleration of personal production or even legalization."