THERE'S GOOD NEWS, AND THERE'S BAD NEWS
On the 18th of February, Health Canada organized a large-scale consultation
on its highly criticized federal medical marijuana program. For the first
time since it's creation over 5 years ago, the Office of Cannabis Medical
Access (OCMA) had the foresight to invite a small number of Canadian drug
policy reform and medicinal cannabis advocates. Philippe Lucas, editor of
the DSW's hemp and cannabis section, was in attendance at this meeting as
Director of Canadians for Safe Access http://www.safeaccess.ca The
following feature article is based on an online report he compiled for
The good news is that with the collapse of category 2 into category 1
we're slowly getting to the point where a simple doctor's recommendation
will be enough to access cannabis, although it is hard to understand how
this change is to have any real impact as long as the CMA [ii] and CMPA
[iii] stay opposed to the MMAR [iv] in theory and principle. Furthermore,
for those isolated small communities that don't have medical specialists in
the first place, these policy changes don't mean a thing.
More (sort of) good news is that Health Canada will be looking to contract
more than 1 cultivator when they put in an RFP[v] at the end of this
year. Further details revealed during the meeting suggest that the
government will be hiring 2 cultivators (PPS [vi] and another, in my
opinion), as they have suggested that they would like to make 2 strains
available through drugstores by year's end.
The most frightening developments stemming from this meeting are: 1) HC's
plans to make disclosure to police a mandatory requirement for joining the
program; and 2) the threat that HC plans to eliminate all DPL and PPL [vii]
in the near future, forcing all legal users to use federally-supplied cannabis.
In regards to the first, the concerns are many, but begin with the logical
assertion that those who use this medicine should not be discriminated
against through onerous policies that betray their rights to privacy. This
proposal stems from pressure from the national police orgs. who would like
to continue to bust grow-ops without having to worry about shooting a
cancer patient. It ignores our rights and our concerns over privacy, and
continues to place policing concerns over those of Canada's legal
exemptees. Professionals (teachers, lawyers, doctors...) may have
job-related concerns over the involuntary sharing of this information, as
might anyone who travels to the U.S. (where any such info. would surely
raise alarms at border crossings). Furthermore, insurance companies are
refusing coverage to homes where cannabis is being stored or cultivated,
even legally - this is an unsolved dilemma for participants in this program.
In regards to the second, there is little logic in limiting the supply
options for Canada's legitimate users of therapeutic cannabis. If
exemptees can get the strains that help them grown safely and locally, what
is gained by disallowing this form of self-supply and forcing exemptees to
use a poor quality, potentially dangerous federally-grown product? Cannabis
is different than other pharmaceuticals or over the counter-drugs in that
it can be safely produced by the user; so why impose the cost of the
federal supply on those who would rather use a known strain grown in a
method of their own chosing (i.e. organics vs. HC's non-organic
cultivation)? There is no justification for allowing this kind of federal
monopoly on cultivation; exemptees will lose much choice and freedom - and
gain nothing - from this policy shift.
Lastly, it is clear that although compassion clubs and societies have been
invited to this round of consultation, Health Canada has no plans to ever
license, regulate, or legalize these orgs. When I asked Beth Pieterson and
Valerie Lasher [viii] whether they could foresee a role for the clubs
within the present of future of the HC program, they stated that they
couldn't, although they expressed that compassion societies may wish to put
in a proposal to cultivate cannabis for the feds when the RFP comes out
later this year.
Considering that Canada's compassion clubs are currently involved in far
more legitimate research than Health Canada, that clubs have a membership
that is roughly 10 times that of the federal government, and that far more
exemptees seek out their supply of cannabis from clubs than from the
government, their reluctance to work with compassion societies is
inexcusable, and is surely adding to the unnecessary suffering that this
program should be addressing in the first place. When I inquired as to why
HC was not interested in developing a more cooperative relationship with
the clubs, I was told that it is because they are illegal. After pointing
out that according to the CDSA they could be legally licensed in a moment's
time at the sole discretion of the Minister of Health (and that they are
therefore no more illegal than pharmacies, which will need the same to
begin to distribute cannabis), Beth changed the subject and stated that
licensing the clubs would violate our "international obligations". This
is, of course, ridiculous since the production and distribution of
controlled substance is clearly exempt from the UN Single Convention as
long as it is for medical purposes. In other words, HC's intransigence
regarding compassion clubs amounts to nothing more than an unjustified
monopoly, and shows no regard to actually helping sick Canadians.
Considering the incredible contribution of Canadian compassion clubs and
societies to medicinal cannabis cultivation, distribution, and safe use, it
is an inexplicable shame that Health Canada has displayed neither the
creativity nor the common sense to work more closely with the clubs.
I would like to end by pointing out is that this is Health Canada's vision
for this program; this is not our vision. This doesn't anticipate or
account for future court battles, continued exemptee concerns, or
constitutional challenges; it doesn't anticipate changes in government,
increased public pressure, or for a sudden unexpected influx of compassion
from our federal government. Ever since the start of this program,
activists and exemptees have worked hard to ensure that the needs and
concerns of Canada's critically and chronically ill are addressed by our
federal govt. When they have failed to listen or pay heed to our
well-meaning advice, we have been forced to go to the press and public,
and/or to the courts; and more often than not, we have succeeded. As a
community, we continue to make a huge difference. Until Health Canada
finally shows the common sense to decentralize this program and to allow
for non-profit, community-based cultivation and distribution (saving
themselves money, resources, and legal difficulties), compassion clubs will
continue to supplement their anemic, ineffective program, and together with
cannabis reform activists from all over the country, we will work towards
and fight for a better system for us all.
Under the MMAR, applicants to the federal program fall into 3
categories: Category 1 for terminal patients, requiring only 1 physician's
recommendation; Category 2 for (somewhat arbitrary) serious chronic
illness, such as AIDS or MS, requiring the support of both a specialist and
physician; and Category 3, a catch-all for all remaining conditions,
requiring the support of a physician and 2 specialists.
[ii] Canadian Medical Association, Canada's national medical association.
[iii] Canadian Medical Protection Association, Canada's largest medical
[iv] The Medical Marijuana Access Regulations are the federal rules
governing the implementation of this program.
[v] Request for Proposals
[vi] Prairie Plant Systems, the current federally contracted cultivator,
who's initial crop was widely criticized for it's poor quality.
[vii] Designated Person Licenses and Personal Production Licenses, both of
which allow for the non-governmental production of cannabis.
[viii] Beth Pieterson is the Director of the Controlled Drugs And
Substances branch of Health Canada, and Valerie Lasher is the
Acting-Director of the Office of Cannabis Medical Access.