Health

Health Canada appears ready to make things a lot worse for medical cannabis users.

Proposed amendments to the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations will take away both legal options patients have to produce their own medicine. More drug companies will be granted authority to produce and distribute cannabis. Some of the amendments may improve a patient’s ability to access cannabis products, but there is no guarantee that they will work. Time will tell.

Court decisions, political pressure, and complaints from stakeholders have forced Health Canada to admit that there are serious problems with the current situation. Unfortunately, the government has decided to stop the only part of the program that was even coming close to meeting the needs of patients.

Even more frustrating is the mock consultations Health Canada has announced. When the government first announced they were beginning a public process to accept feedback on the MMAR on Thurs. June 16, it seemed they were genuinely interested in reviewing the program to make it work better for everyone. The next day proposed amendments were released outlining Health Canada’s plans to stop granting patients legal permission to grow their own medicine, and open the market to pharmaceutical companies.

It is obvious sick people are the last to have a chance to formally comment on the problems created by the MMAR. Ironically, patient needs appear to be at the bottom of the government’s list of priorities.

Last year, Health Canada began holding meetings with so-called “stakeholders.” Who all the stakeholders are is not clear. It is clear that police, doctors, pharmacists, medical associations, bureaucrats, and lawyers were given ample opportunity to comment upon problems they had with the MMAR, and the measures they would like to see for improvements. There may have been meetings with patients, but to my knowledge the recent call for comments on the proposed amendments is the only formal notification that Health Canada is seeking input from license holders or the general public.

A small handful of medical dispensaries and designated growers were contacted by Health Canada last year when these changes were being considered. Meetings were held in Vancouver, Toronto, and Halifax. Details are sketchy, but it seems Health Canada revealed little about their intentions during these meetings. Officials listened to the concerns and opinions of club operators and growers, but apparently did not say much about their agenda.

One of the participants, John Cook, founder of the Halifax chapter of the Cannabis Buyers’ Clubs of Canada, recalls “Health Canada was looking, and seemed to actually listen—not sure though—to any suggestion/comment to improve the program. They asked our biggest concerns with the program at that time.”

It should be noted that in the last year Health Canada has shortened the time it takes for patients to receive their licenses. Last year, waiting times were months longer than the four to six weeks that Health Canada normally allows themselves to process an application.

Though it seems almost all of the concerns raised by cannabis activists were ignored in the first series of meetings, Health Canada has started organizing a second round of meetings with club operators in Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto. We received an email on June 22, my 42nd birthday, inviting a single representative from our club to attend one of these private meetings to discuss the amendments to the MMAR. It almost felt like a gift from Stephen Harper.

Of course, I have no illusions that Health Canada is actually interested in what any cannabis activist has to say. These bureaucrats decided their course of action long ago. The only reason for these meetings is so Health Canada can claim to have listened to the concerns of advocates and patients when defending the amendments in court. Their hope is that by giving medical dispensaries an opportunity to comment upon the proposed changes, the public will think that clubs support the end of personal grow-ops in favour of commercial ventures.

There is one sure way for patients, dispensaries, and interested members of the public to make it clear that the proposed MMAR amendments are unacceptable. We need large crowds of patients and protesters outside of the building when each of these meetings are taking place. Officials at Health Canada should not be allowed to conduct private meetings with single individuals from different groups for the purpose of hearing comments on the proposed amendments. Open forums, where the public can listen to advocates state their case and hear the government’s response, are not hard to organize and would give the process a sense of transparency that is otherwise totally lacking.

Medical cannabis dispensary representatives also need to make it clear that taking the legal right to grow your own medicine away is contrary to the health of the patient. Many individuals with serious medical problems still have the physical ability and financial resources to grow their own cannabis. This healthy activity provides successful growers with plenty of inexpensive herb, at no cost to the government, giving patients full control over the strains they grow.

Once a grow-op is properly built, it can provide years of low-cost, high quality medicine. Health Canada currently does nothing to help people who have received a license to grow—no advice, no cautions, no helpful tips, nothing more than a card and piece of paper for the door of the grow room. While smaller grow-ops do not have the efficiencies of larger operations, personal gardens give patients enormous amounts of satisfaction.

Other patients have partners, children, or parents who are ready, willing, and able to grow this medicine for them. Compassionate caregivers would happily comply with reasonable health and safety regulations, if it meant they could provide this herb for their patient. Taking the legal right to grow medicine away from patients and their caregivers is unacceptable.

Many people who currently produce their own medicine will needlessly suffer if Health Canada proceeds to force patients to buy their legal medicine from drug companies through the mail. There is no way for the government to control the price, and distribution will apparently be through the mail only, so most patients will go back to the street if they are not able to continue to grow their own.

There is no doubt many people who have built nice facilities to supply themselves with medicine will not cut down the plants when their license does not get renewed. It is easy to assume the police will visit everyone who had a license to grow cannabis. The result will be hundreds of trials across the country where lawyers will argue whether or not we have the right to grow our own medicine.

This appears to be part of the Conservative Party’s strategy. The newly elected majority Conservative government does not seem concerned about the costs about to be incurred as a result of their tough on crime bills. They will not care how much the legal costs will be when they try to take people’s licenses away, as their agenda is to throw everyone who grows cannabis in jail.

Mandatory minimum jail sentences of six months for as few as six plants, and 18 months for making hashish or pot cookies, were close to becoming law while the Conservatives had a minority government. Now that they have almost full control of the Canadian Government, these zealots are prepared to throw patients in jail for defying these horrific amendments.

After years of being criticized for only having one strain available, it appears Health Canada has started to recognize the fact that different types of cannabis have unique effects. Advocates have known this for years, with many patients and their caregivers developing strains over the years that help with their specific medical challenges. Under the new system drug companies will be able to grow many types of cannabis, though it is not clear how many drug companies Health Canada is prepared to license to grow, or how many strains each company is required to develop.

No one reading this article will have a chance to get one of the contracts from Health Canada to grow. A long list of requirements to get the contract will likely include expensive security measures, irradiation equipment, extensive education within the executive and laboratory experience in extracting drugs from plants. It would surprise if more than two or three drug companies were given the opportunity to produce cannabis. Whoever gets in the program will have no trouble growing better medicine than Prairie Plant Systems, which is one possible positive outcome of these amendments.

Another change that could produce positive results is the plan to have forms available with all doctors that would be simple and easy for physicians to sign. Time will tell if this is an improvement or a measure that will actually place another roadblock for patients to overcome when trying to convince reluctant doctors to sign the forms. Not being required to send information to Health Canada may make some doctors more willing to sign the documents necessary to obtain legal cannabis, but not many.

The most positive amendment should have been made 10 years ago when the program was introduced. Compiling peer-reviewed scientific literature on the medical uses of cannabis should have been a top priority all along. Soon after establishing a minority government five years ago, the Conservatives cut all funding to research the medical uses of cannabis. Meanwhile, studies on cannabis, extracts, and endo-cannabinoids are being done around the world. Until now, Canadian doctors have had to rely upon information they discovered themselves, most often because of a patient’s inquiry.

Cannabis extracts were not mentioned in the recently announced amendments. This means patients who prefer to use hash, honey oil, edible or topical cannabis products face the risk of being prosecuted for production of an illegal drug. Cannabis resin, THC, CBD, and CBN are all listed as separate drugs in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Perhaps nothing highlights Health Canada’s real intentions more than the exclusion of these extracts from the MMAR. While they allow drug companies to profit selling synthetic THC at $8 per pill, Health Canada seems content to allow the criminal justice system to punish patients who have learned to manage their symptoms by eating or topically applying cannabis butters and vegetable oils.

Eating properly made cannabis products can dramatically control a wide range of medical symptoms. By selling edible and topical cannabis products at the lowest price possible, the Cannabis Buyers’ Clubs of Canada has helped hundreds of patients cut down, or eliminate, prescription drug use and improve their health. Seeing is truly believing, and after over 15 years of selling cannabis medicines, I am firmly convinced of the extraordinary healing powers of this plant. I also understand the power of greed. Pharmaceutical companies are threatened by the existence of cannabis because they have developed drugs according to an expensive process of regulation and testing and the widespread use of a herb people could grow in their backyard could seriously affect their bottom line. Medical marijuana grown in greenhouses and cooked in kitchens around the world would have a massive impact upon prescription drug use rates.

That is why the pharmaceutical industry wants Health Canada to open the legal market for large-scale production, by eliminating personal and small-scale producers. If cannabis is going to be legally available as a medicine, you can bet these drug companies want as much control as possible, especially if sales in other drugs could plummet. Ultimately, not only are these amendments flawed and the MMAR dysfunctional, but the prohibition of cannabis outright is the main problem we face. So long as recreational users are punished for growing or using this plant, there will be massive problems with the distribution of cannabis as medicine.

Though Health Canada is only asking for comments on the proposed amendments, I believe cannabis advocates should take every opportunity to inform government officials about the broad failure of cannabis prohibition and its impacts upon the distribution of this herb as medicine. Since the use of cannabis as medicine has become firmly established, the issue of how it is to be produced and distributed is what is really being fought over here.

Medical cannabis dispensaries currently act as illegal sanctuaries for victims of the drug war. Raids across the country in 2010 seem to indicate the RCMP, Public Prosecution Services of Canada, Department of Justice, Health Canada, and politicians are ready to test the validity of these clubs. Many of these clubs facing trials, including the CBC of C, have been invited to discuss these proposed amendments, even though there are no provisions that would allow us to operate.

Indeed, these amendments seem designed to prepare the public to shut down all medical cannabis dispensaries across the country in favour of mail-order, irradiated herb grown for-profit by large corporations. It is unlikely the Government of Canada will change any of its plans because of what we say in these behind-closed-doors meetings, as Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s Health Minister has already made it clear it is their intention to shut down personal medical grow-ops.

The introduction of these amendments makes it difficult for the government to argue that the MMAR is working, and that compassion clubs are not justified in operating under the circumstances. If anything, these amendments are confirmation that clubs are needed, at least until the government establishes a working model. Of course, the best working model would include locally controlled facilities that are subsidized by recreational users, but the courts cannot seem to force the government to do that.

Courts can throw out charges against medical cannabis providers, which is exactly what they have consistently done for over 10 years when a proper defence has been mounted.

This is exactly what we predict will happen on Jan. 16, 2012, when the 20-day jury trial of Owen Smith will begin. Owen was making edible and topical products for the Cannabis Buyers’ Clubs of Canada when the police came to the door of a downtown Victoria apartment in Dec. 2009. Lawyer Kirk Tousaw will argue that the charges of possession of THC for the purposes of trafficking should not only be dropped because the MMAR is unconstitutional, but that the prohibition of cannabis in general should be struck down due to the continued failure of our government to create a functional medical cannabis program.

Everyone concerned about these issues should read the proposed amendments themselves, and send their comments to Health Canada. It is my hope that there will be many protests organized by local, grassroots activists connected to dispensaries and head shops in the three cities these private meetings are being held. Patients holding on to their plants outside the doors of these behind-closed-doors meetings would give the media and public a perfect visual picture. After all, it is just a plant.