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 fellow activists. 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. Footnotes: 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 insurance company. [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.