UN watchdog takes aim at Canada's medical marijuana plan
UNITED NATIONS — Justice Minister Robert Nicholson said Wednesday the government’s medical marijuana regulations are under review after the UN’s drugs watchdog warned Canada needs to tighten up the system.
The Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board said Canada is operating outside international treaty rules aimed at minimizing the risk criminals will get hold of cannabis grown under the program.
“The whole question of medical marijuana is being looked at by the minister of health with respect to the options that she has,” said Nicholson, whose ministry serves as the umbrella agency for the government’s anti-drug efforts.
“There has been litigation on this that has called for new regulations in this area.”
The warning in the INCB’s annual report accompanies praise for the government’s National Anti-Drug Strategy, which the board said it notes “with appreciation.”
Nicholson said he took heart from that, adding it “plays very well” into the government’s efforts to push through a crime bill containing tougher drugs-offences sentencing provisions that has been held up in the Senate.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews also argued the report “provides further proof that Canada is recognized internationally as a leader in crime prevention.”
Canada increased the number of cannabis cultivation licences a person can hold last year after court decisions stated patients’ earlier access had been too restricted.
Currently, Health Canada has issued almost 4,900 permits allowing people to possess medical marijuana they get from more than 1,100 licensed growers, some of whom are growing it for their own use.
“Canada continues to be one of the few countries in the world that allows cannabis to be prescribed by doctors to patients with certain serious illnesses,” said the INCB report.
But the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics, which Canada has signed, says the government must be the sole distributor of the otherwise illegal substance, which patients use as a pain reliever.
The opportunity for misuse of the system is reflected in an RCMP review identifying 40 cases in which licensed growers were also trafficking marijuana for profit. The same review found violations in a total of 70 cases.
While the INCB report noted that Canada “intends to reassess” its access-to-cannabis program, it said the board “requests the government to respect the provisions” of the 1961 convention in conducting its review.
The sole company among the growers that Health Canada has contracted to supply some 28 per cent of the current permit holders signalled Wednesday it would welcome a more focused oversight.
“We get severe criticism from the armchair critics and those who feel threatened that we’re infringing on their rights to produce cannabis,” said Brent Zettl, president of Prairie Plant Systems Inc., of Saskatoon.
“But we’re already essentially conforming to the convention.”
Health Canada frequently inspects the company’s operations, and officially “owns” the cannabis it produces for shipment to clients.
Even some involved in helping patients acquire the possession permits agree that the current system is flawed.
“To Health Canada’s self-admittance, there are a lot of grey areas,” said Chad Clelland, director of online and community relations with medicalmarihuana.ca, an Internet-based support site. “But they are so slow to change.”
Still, Clelland said he does not believe that centralized government-run production is the answer.
“A lot of patients find different strains affect their symptoms in different ways, so the government would have to have multiple strains in production to give a proper selections,” he said.
Feb. 25, 2010
Canwest News Service