Mon, February 6, 2006Can I pay ya later?
Gov't forced to collect pot debts
OTTAWA -- Like any dope dealer, Health Canada has its share of marijuana customers who just don't pay their bills.
But unlike street pushers, the department avoids tire irons and switchblades to recover its bad debts in favour of stern letters and collection agencies.
As of last month, 127 people authorized to buy government-certified marijuana for various medical problems were officially in arrears, with bills unpaid more than 90 days.
That's almost half the 278 patients who receive Health Canada marijuana or seeds, most of them buying 30-gram bags of ground buds for $150. A package of 30 seeds goes for $20.
Altogether, patients in arrears now owe $168,879 to Health Canada for medical marijuana, produced on contract by Prairie Plant Systems Inc. for the federal government.
The arrears amount has swollen by more than $100,000 over the last year alone, as department officials realized their medical marijuana policy never indicated to patients the consequences of not paying their drug bills.
Spokesman Chris Williams says these patients now receive reminder letters and telephone calls from civil servants in the department's corporate services branch, and are given an opportunity to set up a repayment schedule.
"If all that is rejected, the supply would be halted," he said in an interview. So far, 19 users have been cut off from further shipments because of non-payment.
After 180 days, a final letter is sent and if no money arrives within 10 days, the matter is turned over to a collection agency, like any other account with Ottawa.
One medical marijuana user and activist slammed the Health Department for requiring often-impoverished patients to buy the product, saying taxpayers have already footed the bill once.
"The Canadian people have already paid for it -- I think it's absolutely horrible that we're charging them twice," said Alison Myrden of Burlington, Ont., who has lived with multiple sclerosis for more than a decade.
"We have no money as it is. Most of us are on full disability for life ... It's a choice between marijuana or food for most of us."
The first shipments of government marijuana in the fall of 2003 were of such poor quality, many medical users gagged, coughed and promptly returned the product. The batch was weak, dry, ground up too fine and included the less potent leaves and stems. In May 2004, a new batch was released, eliminating the stem and leaves. Made of flowering tops only, the new dope had a higher moisture content and stronger levels of THC, the main active ingredient, though the buds were still ground up to ensure consistency.
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