Health Canada confirmed this week that it has a proposal under development to undertake a pilot program where marijuana grown under government contract will be made available through pharmacies to medical marijuana users registered with Health Canada. The move, which, according to press reports, will begin in British Columbia, will make Canada only the second country to provide the herb at the drugstore. The Netherlands began making medical marijuana available through pharmacies last year (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/301/netherlands.shtml).
But despite a story that appeared in the press agency Canadian Press on Monday saying that British Columbia would be the site of the first pilot program, Health Canada spokesperson Catherine Saunders told DRCNet Thursday she couldn't confirm that because "all the details haven't been worked out." Actual implementation of a pilot program is "months away, at best," she said.
"We are examining a range of changes to the medical marijuana access regulations, and one proposed change is to include allowing patients to obtain it through Canadian pharmacies," Saunders said. "If the regulatory changes were made so that pharmacists had the authority to dispense marijuana, then we could move forward. What needs to happen first is that we have to submit proposed amendments to the regulations for approval by publishing them in the Canada Gazette in May and have them approved in the fall. After the regulatory changes are made, over the next few months Health Canada will be working with pharmacists and their associations, as well as provincial and local regulatory authorities on how to implement a program. It will be some months before anything concrete is developed," she cautioned.
While activists and medical marijuana patients and advocates welcomed any loosening of what they see as Health Canada's cumbersome and bureaucratized medical marijuana program, they said the proposal does not address broader complaints they have with the program. Health Canada has not supported medical marijuana, but was forced to take it up because of court rulings that threatened to undo Canada's marijuana possession laws if the government did not act to make marijuana available to patients who need it.
Only some 700 people nationwide have undergone the process of becoming a Health Canada-certified medical marijuana patient, while Health Canada estimates the number of Canadian medical marijuana users at 400,000. That number may be low. In the Canadian Press article on Monday, Health Canada pharmacist consultant Robin O'Brien estimated the number of medical marijuana users in British Columbia alone at 290,000.
"It's a step sideways," said Tim Meehan of Ontario Consumers for Safe Access to Recreational Cannabis (http://www.ocsarc.org). "The government may be trying to say that you can just go down and get it from your pharmacist, but it is not addressing the fundamental issue that the product is crap," he told DRCNet. "You can go online to one of Canada's existing compassion clubs and order far better stuff than Health Canada offers -- several have mail order services," he pointed out.
Indeed, the marijuana produced under a $5 million dollar contract with Prairie Plant Systems of Flin Flon, Manitoba, for use in the Health Canada medical marijuana program, is widely scorned. "I'm a recipient of the government cannabis and I can't tell you how bad it is," said Philippe Lucas, who is director of Canadians for Safe Access (http://www.safeaccess.ca), a spin-off of its sister organization to the south, as well as the communications director for DrugSense (http://www.drugsense.org). "It's horrible stuff. It's not as strong as the government claims, and it's high in heavy metals. I couldn't sell this on the street, let alone at my compassion club. That the government is trying to make this stuff more widely available is a form of fraud," Lucas told DRCNet. "I would support this if they allowed multiple strains to be grown in a safe, organic manner by people with experience growing medical marijuana."
"That criticism is based on personal perceptions, not anything inherent in the actual product," retorted Health Canada's Saunders. "But we are attentive to the feedback we've received about Prairie Plant Systems, and we are exploring ways of modifying the manner in which it is physically prepared. We're hoping we can make some changes to address those comments."
"Personal perception?" scoffed Lucas. "They say it has 10% THC, but our lab results this week showed it at 6%, and last week the sample came in at 5.1%." Still, even Lucas conceded that getting medical marijuana into pharmacies is a step in the right direction. "Some aspects of this are quite good," he said. "It is good to see BC pharmacists recognizing the safety and efficacy of medical cannabis. Their enthusiasm for the pilot program is telling."
For Brian Taylor of Cannabis Health magazine (http://www.cannabishealth.com), who along with Lucas was one of a handful of medical marijuana advocates invited to meet with Health Canada to discuss revision of the regulations last month, the key issue is that of supply. "These new regulations that are coming down will basically open the door to thousands of new patients via distribution through pharmacies," he told DRCNet. "Patients should be able to use their patient card and get their cannabis. But what we've seen in Holland is that patients are turning away from the pharmacies because of the cost. We need to have a system where patients can get cannabis medicine that is safe, affordable, and that comes in different varieties," he said. "Health Canada is only planning one more big contract for one more strain."
Lucas pointed out that the pilot program will expend a lot of dollars to reach very few people. "Right now there are 115 exemptees in British Columbia. On average, about 10% of the people in the government program ask the government to be their supplier, whereas about 50% currently get it through the compassion clubs. This will literally affect about a dozen people, and we will spend a million dollars to do it. It's disturbing to see our tax money spent this way when we could just let the clubs do it," he said.
"We should be exploring the licensing and registration of the organizations that have done so much more to help people on this than the federal government -- the compassion clubs," said Lucas. "When we met with the heads of the Office of Medical Cannabis Access we asked them if they saw a place for the clubs, and they said no. They claimed international treaties blocked that, but I read those treaties as excluding medicinal distribution from their purview."
Health Canada doesn't see it that way. "That is not so," said Saunders when confronted with Lucas' interpretation of the international drug treaties. "We have an international obligation to remain committed to the regulation of controlled substances. The treaties would frown on our having an open market in medical marijuana. That's why in the regulations you can only grow for one person -- to limit the possibility of diversion."
Still, said Saunders, Health Canada is committed to working with all the stakeholders on this issue, including people currently authorized to use marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Brian Taylor has a better idea. "The ideal solution is end prohibition," he said. "In the short term, we don't need bad government cannabis in pharmacies when we have community-based cooperatives -- the compassion clubs -- currently serving many, many more people than Health Canada with better quality and a higher satisfaction level."
So, medical marijuana will soon be coming to a Canadian pharmacy near you. Too bad it's going to be crappy weed. And too bad the people who know how to grow the good stuff and get it to patients are being cut out.