The face of medical marijuana

By Korie Marshall

A federal court injunction granted last week may give medical marijuana patients a reprieve, but it is a little close to the wire. Some locals are still considering which side of the “health-or-freedom” line they will be on if the new regulations hold up.

The new federal regulations for marijuana for medical purposes (MMPR) came into effect last year, but were running concurrently with the old Medical Marihuana Access Regulations (MMAR), set to expire March 31st, 2014. The old program allowed patients to grow their own marijuana or have someone grow it for them, but these grow ops were not regulated, and the government and Health Canada claim the system was open to serious abuse.

The new MMPR program requires patients purchase their marijuana from federally-licensed, commercial grow ops. BC lawyer John Conroy has challenged the new program saying it is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Conroy represents a group of medical marijuana users, and he says under section seven of the Charter everyone who is medically approved to use cannabis has a right to reasonable access to it as a medicine for their health. Conroy and his clients claim the new MMPR will cause patients who cannot afford black market or licensed producer prices to have to choose between their liberty (being arrested and charged with production of marijuana) and their health (accessing the medicine that works best for their health).

At least one local patient in the Robson Valley area agrees, and says there are other locals who are in the same situation.

Ed (not his real name) doesn’t want to be identified, because he is still considering whether he’ll go “underground” with his personal grow op. He says he has been growing legal cannabis for himself for years to treat his post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms from being in the war. Cannabis also helps him relieve stress which aggravates another medical condition, but his stress has worsened in the last month, because of the looming changes to the medical marijuana system.

“Like many patients, I have a spotless criminal record. I’ve never been arrested for anything in my life,” says Ed, but after April 1st, he may run the risk of being charged. And among other things, a drug charge would prevent him from visiting family in another country.

Ed says he knows other patients in the area who use cannabis for cancer, PTSD and other medical conditions. “Without exception, they are without a criminal record, can’t afford the increase (in the cost of their medication), and have money and time invested in a particular strain for their particular need.”

“I know what I’m growing – a specific variety for stress disorders, and I know what it cost me, after investing thousands to comply with the government regulations – wiring, ventilation and security,” says Ed.

And he says other local patients are also intimidated by the current federal government.

In early March, Ed was happy to read an article by the Canadian Press that said many police forces in BC don’t plan to crack down on patients growing marijuana for their own personal use once the laws changed, although the RCMP has said it will continue to enforce federal drug laws.

But then he read a statement from Health Canada on March 17, saying Health Canada “does not endorse the use of marihuana” and will be requiring patients under the old program to destroy any remaining marijuana they have. If patients don’t confirm to Health Canada the drug has been destroyed, Health Canada says it will “notify law enforcement.”

Ed says he thinks Health Canada releasing medical information to the police is an infringement on his privacy, a violation of patient-doctor confidentiality. But on top of that, they are expecting him to destroy any of his remaining medicine, and wait until one of the newly licensed producers can send him his prescription – and he won’t know what strain it is, or what the THC content level is, and based on his calculations, he’ll have to pay 6-10 times what he spends on it now.

Dana Larsen, society manager and director of the Medical Cannabis Dispensary in Vancouver and advocate for legalizing marijuana, says Health Canada is not supposed to give that information out, “it is private, medical information, really not any of the RCMP’s business.” He says some patients might have let the RCMP know they were growing legally, and there may be some that were under investigation. In that case, the RCMP could have checked with Health Canada to see if someone has a license to grow, but Health Canada cannot just hand over a list.

Larsen says the recent announcement from Health Canada saying patients not only have to disassemble their grow op, but have to destroy their medicine and buy new, is punitive.

“There may be problems around grow ops; I think those could have been resolved differently. But to also make you
throw away what you’ve grown and buy more? What is the point of that? That is not protecting anybody’s safety, it’s already been grown. That is just punitive and harsh.”

It has created an uproar, Larsen says, because some patients had been planning to harvest enough medicine by the March 31 deadline to last them for a while. And he is concerned the new licensed operations won’t have enough cannabis ready for several months if all the patients comply with the new legislation.

By March 21, Ed was pretty sure he was going to have to risk his personal freedom and try to grow his medicine underground, but hearing the injunction was granted gave him some hope. A federal court judge granted Conroy and his clients the injunction on Friday. That means roughly 40,000 Canadians will be allowed to continue to grow and use their own cannabis until the constitutional challenge can be heard in court.

Larsen says the main reasons people want to grow their cannabis at home are price and accessibility. He says buying it from these licensed companies will be at street prices, $5-10 per gram. “And for those who need a lot of this medicine, that is not affordable, and they are going to have to make difficult choices.”

He says the best way to stop people from growing it at home is for the government to offer cheap, high quality medicine.

“If the government would offer it for 50 cents a gram, people wouldn’t bother growing it for themselves.”

Dori Dempster, director and store administrator for the Cannabis Dispensary and also a medical marijuana patient, thinks doctors are going to be more reluctant to get their patients set up with the new program, “which seems to have more issues, and it certainly doesn’t address the patient’s needs.” She says her doctor was happy to see she was trying to retain her rights under the old MMAR system.

The Goat asked Northern Health if it has a policy regarding medical marijuana, and whether patients under the old program will have problems getting new prescriptions from their doctors under the new program. Northern Health would only say that smoking medical marijuana on Northern Health property would fall under smoking regulations, and referred our questions about the program to the provincial Ministry of Health.

Trish Rorison, Senior Public Affairs Officer for the Ministry of Health referred us to Health Canada, but said the courts have determined that Canadians have a constitutional right to cannabis for therapeutic purposes. She says that the BC Government does not manage access or distribution of this product; it is managed by the federal government.

Sara Lauer, Media Relations Officer for Health Canada, said new licensed producers had registered only 1,800 clients by the end of February, but Heath Canada has now received more than 450 applications from across the country to be licensed producers. One of them, CanniMed, told us they will have the capacity to serve 10,000 new patients on April 1, with a facility expansion underway that will allow them to serve 25,000 patients by June. CanniMed’s website currently advertises prices between $4.88 and $13.50 per gram. A list of licensed producers under the new MMPR can be found on Health Canada’s website: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/marihuana/info/list-eng.php.

Lauer said there are no special requirements for any licensed doctor to prescribe marijuana, but Ryan Jabbs, another Ministry of Health spokesperson, said medical marijuana is not prescribed through pharmacies, so the provincial ministry doesn’t track it.

A press release from Health Canada after the injunction was granted says the rapid expansion from 100 users to over 40,000 in the 10 years of the MMAR has had significant unintended consequences on public health, safety and security. It says it is also important for Canadians to remember that marijuana is not an approved drug or medicine in Canada.