OTTAWA RELAXES POT RULES
Streamlined to help applicants find doctors willing to prescribe marijuana
Under fire by critics for providing a half-hearted and overly restrictive medical marijuana program, the federal government will unveil new regulations this week designed to ease the onus on physicians and patients.
A major change drops the demand that doctors agree in writing that the benefits of smoking marijuana outweigh the risks to their patients. Doctors had balked at being obliged to make such a statement in the absence of marijuana being an approved therapeutic product.
"Applicants say it's hard to find doctors," Valerie Lasher, the manager of Health Canada's medical marijuana program, said as she briefed The Ottawa Citizen on the changes. "What we have tried to do is streamline the regulations."
The new regime ends the requirement that one specialist, and in some cases two, must sign the application. From now on, the signature of a general practitioner will suffice, as long as in some defined cases, the physician provides the name of a specialist the patient has seen in the last year.
In the case of patients with terminal illnesses, doctors signing their applications for medical marijuana will no longer have to state the person will die within a year. The doctor only has to state the patient is suffering from a terminal illness.
The new regulations for the 5-year-old program are slated to be published Wednesday in the Canada Gazette.
Medical pot users, health professionals and politicians have slagged the government program for everything from supplying bad weed to being too restrictive about who qualifies as a licensed medical marijuana user or grower. They charged the application forms were a "bureaucratic maze."
Lasher said building the program has been "challenging." But she refused to apologize for the quality of the marijuana, which she said was research grade and sells for $5 a gram, or half the black-market rate. Nor is she apologetic about the progress made in implementing one of the world's only government-run medical marijuana programs for people suffering from terminal illnesses and such conditions as AIDS, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.
Lasher grimaces at the mere mention of her RCMP nickname, "marijuana mamma."
She says a big challenge of the job is getting rid of the "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" factor.
"This is marijuana for medical purposes," she said. "It's not about legalization. It's not about decriminalization. It's not about recreation.
It's about giving people access to a product that they honestly believe is the best, if not the only treatment for them."
Lasher conceded almost all applications so far have been slowed or listed as "dormant" because they have arrived with something missing, usually the required medical signatures.
The Canadian Medical Association has resisted the program from Day 1 on ground marijuana is an unproven therapy and an illegal drug.
Albert Schumacher, president of the CMA, said he's eager to see the new regulations when they are published this week. He predicted the vast majority of Canadian doctors will continue to refuse to sign applications until there is evidence pot has therapeutic value.
NDP MP Libby Davies says the government's approach has forced thousands of sick Canadians to turn to illegal sources for their marijuana.
As of June 3 this year, 864 people were authorized to possess marijuana for medical purposes, 636 persons were allowed to cultivate it for that purpose, and 143 people were receiving medical marijuana from the government's $5.7-million grow operation in an abandoned mine in Flin Flon, Man. The operation is run by Prairie Plant Systems Inc. in Saskatoon.
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