Canada Feature

Medical Marijuana Patient Revolt

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s the Minister responsible for Health Canada, Rona Ambrose sure looked like the April Fool this year. Instead of Apr. 1, 2014 being the big day for a new commercial medical cannabis industry to take full control of the market, an injunction has thrown off the government’s plan. While no one can know for certain how things will work out, one thing that is obvious is that this Conservative administration is at war with the cannabis culture, and they are likely to keep fighting as long as they exist.

An appeal challenging the granting of an injunction was filed on Apr. 1, making it clear that the government does not even consider this a serious enough matter to require a trial. In the arrogant opinion of this government, Federal Court Judge Manson erred when he determined that a trial was necessary, let alone his decision to allow patients and caregivers to grow until its conclusion.

Eight-year-old Cadence Hope Martelle poses with her family during a medical marijuana rally on Parliament Hill Tuesday.
Eight-year-old Cadence Hope Martelle poses with her family during a medical marijuana rally on Parliament Hill Tuesday.

That injunction was announced on Fri. Mar. 21 and it sent shock waves across the country. Patients expressed a collective sigh of relief when it became clear they would not have to cut down their plants on Mar. 31. Police and fire departments cried foul as many of them were looking forward to breaking down the doors of every legal grow-op they knew of. Licensed Producers (LPs) scrambled to ensure their investors that profit was still on the horizon.
One of the main reasons Health Canada sought to take personal licenses away was to give the new industry a better chance of success. This has some activists calling for a name change to “Wealth Canada,” as patients are taking a back seat to corporations.

To many it seems the government has lead companies on to think that there is a massive industry just around the corner. That might be true if doctors were educated about cannabis and were willing to use it as a first response instead of only reluctantly prescribing it to patients that beg them for assistance. With the Canadian Medical Association promising to investigate almost every single time cannabis is recommended, Canadian doctors should be wary of “prescribing” medical marijuana under new regulations says the president of the CMA. “For the CMA, nothing has really changed,” says Dr. Hugo Francescutti. “Our stand has always been that there is insufficient scientific evidence to support the use of marijuana for clinical purposes.”

Without doctors signing forms, it is hard to imagine that by 2020 the medical cannabis industry will be doing $1.4 billion per year, but that is what Health Canada has lead these LPs to believe. With about 650 LP applications into Health Canada so far, the desire to make money has seemingly trumped reason and caution in many investors. Millions and millions of dollars are being poured into growing facilities across the country, despite the fact the government has a terrible track record with its medical cannabis programs.[pullquote align=”right”]If the injunction was not successful, an estimated 3.5 million plants would have been cut down on Mar. 31[/pullquote]

To make matters even worse for the majority of them, Health Canada has only approved 12 of the applicants as of press time. This is far less than was predicted would be fully operational by now, leading some to speculate that there is not enough medicine around if all 40,000 MMAR patients started purchasing all of their needs from them. This has given a clear and distinct advantage to the LPs that have been allowed to operate full tilt.

Even the companies given this advantage are feeling the effect of the injunction. “The injunction has really thrown a monkey wrench in this industry,” said Brent Zettl. He is the chief executive officer of Saskatoon-based CanniMed, formerly known as Prairie Plant Systems, the company that had an exclusive contract with Health Canada since the beginning of the program. “There will be a cash-flow crunch in the short term. We always say that necessity is the mother of invention, but cash flow is the father.”

No one feels sorry for these sharks. The money they intend upon making comes from the pockets of the sick and dying. Their desire to profit at the expense of patients is deplorable.

If the injunction was not successful, an estimated 3.5 million plants would have been cut down on Mar. 31. The government instructed patients to take their remaining medicine and plants, grind them up and mix them with kitty litter and water to render it useless. Patients were being warned that if they did not send a letter to Health Canada explaining how much was destroyed and how, police would be sent to their door to lay charges against anyone caught in possession of cannabis without a receipt from a LP.

Image courtesy of iPolitics.
Image courtesy of iPolitics.

Thankfully the injunction was victorious and none of those things have happened, but it is certainly the intent of this government to send police after patients. This meant that the Apr. 1 rally held on Parliament Hill was a lot less intense than it would have been if patients had been forced to cut their plants down the night before. However, even with the victory it was very important for us to hold this protest and keep the pressure on the government. We must fight for patient rights at every opportunity.

One of the main reasons it was important for us to be so vocal on Apr. 1 was so patients could tell their stories. It was also very important to bring lawyer John Conroy to Ottawa to explain the injunction to the national media. April 1 was supposed to be the day LPs took center stage but we made sure that did not happen.

Among the distinguished speakers at the press conference was Debbie Stulz-Giffin, who came from Nova Scotia where she leads Maritimers Unite for Medical Marijuana. She is perhaps the most articulate patient in this country when it comes to the medical uses of this herb, sharing her compelling personal story in ways that strike to the core of the matters at hand. We are blessed to have such a warm, generous spirit on our side. Despite her troubles getting around with MS, she was all over Ottawa giving interviews and spreading her cheer.

The other patient we brought to the press conference was Alison Myrden. She suffers from a rare form of MS that is excruciating and finds cannabis far superior to any pharmaceuticals. Watching what this wonderful woman goes through every day and seeing her taking her wheelchair everywhere possible to advocate is inspiring and humbling.

Our star on Apr. 1, though, was undoubtedly lawyer John Conroy. Fresh off the initial injunction victory, John had to explain the implications to so many reporters and patients that you could tell he was getting tired of it by the end of the day. Though he had not received the appeal officially, word the government was going to challenge the temporary reprieve had reached the media and was the talk of the town.

This rally was only made possible with a generous budget of $5,000 donated by the Vancouver Pain Management Society, with an extra $500 coming in from WEEDS. While we did not solicit donations for the rally, we certainly mentioned the MMAR Coalition Against Repeal, as that is the group supporting John Conroy in court. With predicted costs of $250,000, the coalition is about half way there as of press time.[pullquote align=”right”]“My clients are three disabled British Columbians that simply want the government to stay out of their medicine cabinets and out of their gardens. No one should be locked in cages for growing cannabis and certainly Canada’s critically and chronically ill must be taken off of the front lines of PM Harper’s war on drugs.” Kirk Tousaw[/pullquote]

Sadly, dispensaries are not a part of the new regulations any more than they were a part of the MMAR. This travesty means the people with the experience and desire to help patients are still left breaking the law to provide assistance. The new mail order program will not work for many people unable to obtain a credit card or unwilling to wait for medicine to arrive by courier. Cannabis extracts are also left out of the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, as they were in the MMAR. Hopefully the B.C. Court of Appeal decision in the Owen Smith will help clarify this situation, but John also intends upon bringing this up to the Federal Court.

One of the more contentious parts of the injunction was the 150 gram limit Judge Manson placed upon patients. This seems to have been a weak attempt to align the decision with the new MMPR. Most patients will not be affected by this, but the few that travel and have large prescriptions find this frustrating, and this will likely be challenged in court.

One other problem with the judgement in the eyes of many is the fact that new patients, as of Sept. 30, 2013, have no choice but to buy from LPs. The injunction grandfathered patients and designated growers who had a permit to grow that was active on Sept. 30, 2013 and had an active possession license as of Mar. 21, 2014. That is great for those already into the program, but it means new patients will be forced to endure economic hardship by purchasing from LPs instead of growing their own. However, the judge was intent upon handing down a ruling that would cost the government as little as possible while still protecting the rights of patients.

There are so many legal challenges, appeals, and lawsuits being filed against Health Canada that it is difficult to keep up and impossible to predict the outcome. The injunction appeal will likely be the next big legal battle, with government lawyers trying to convince three judges and the Federal Court of Appeal to overturn what seemed to be a reasonable decision. If they win 3-0, then everyone will have to cut down their plants and get out the kitty litter. If we win 3-0, then we simply proceed to the full hearing on the matter before a single judge at the Federal Court. If it is a split decision either way we can expect to fight to the Supreme Court of Canada, as neither side will just give up easily. Either way, it seems the actual trial for this matter will not take place for another year, and with more appeals available the final outcome could be years away.

Ultimately, we will prevail. In a CBC poll taken the week of Apr. 1, 90 percent of Canadians agree that patients allowed to use cannabis should be allowed to grow it. Obviously most Canadians agree with lawyer Kirk Tousaw, who is also leading several court challenges. “My clients are three disabled British Columbians that simply want the government to stay out of their medicine cabinets and out of their gardens. No one should be locked in cages for growing cannabis and certainly Canada’s critically and chronically ill must be taken off of the front lines of PM Harper’s war on drugs.”

By Ted Smith

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