More MS news articles for December 2000

Get off the pot

The Montreal Gazette
Thursday 14 December 2000

When the federal government decided, more than a year ago, to allow certain individuals to use marijuana for medical reasons, its policy came from good intentions. Marijuana appears to have many medical benefits, including easing pain for sufferers of multiple sclerosis, curbing weight loss in AIDS patients and alleviating chemotherapy-related nausea in cancer patients.

While the longer-term health effects seem far from beneficial, such concerns matter little to those who are desperate for relief.

But the problem with Ottawa's existing system of exemptions, as an Alberta judge pointed out this week, is that even if designated patients can grow and possess marijuana legally for their own medicinal purposes, the fact that there is still no legal supply of marijuana "triggers the absurdity," because a patient still has to commit an illegal act. Even if someone grows their own, they still have to get the seeds from somewhere.

So Judge Darlene Acton, of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench, has struck down, on constitutional grounds, the federal law prohibiting the cultivation of marijuana - but suspended her ruling for a year to give Ottawa time to get its act together. If Ottawa ignores her ruling, it would become legal for anyone to grow marijuana in Alberta.

That ruling follows a similar one last summer by the Ontario Appeal Court, dealing with the possession of marijuana for medicinal purposes. That court, too, gave Ottawa a year to get its act together.

These rulings are the judicial equivalents of two-by-fours smacking smartly down upon Ottawa's head. The Ontario one already had got the federal government's attention, but this new Alberta ruling will reinforce the message.

After the earlier ruling, Ottawa had undertaken to come up with new rules by July 31. How it plans to satisfy the courts remains unclear, but it looks as if the system of individual exemptions might have to be replaced with broader revisions of the relevant articles of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Ottawa also obviously needs to press ahead with its plans to authorize a domestic supplier of marijuana for medical purposes. So far, it has called for applications to supply marijuana for medical research and clinical trials for the next five years, but no contract has yet been awarded. In any case, that marijuana will not be available to individual patients (except through clinical trials). One can sympathize with the Health Department's wish to proceed in a scientific manner, but that doesn't help those who want some relief now.

It's up to Ottawa to get off the, er, pot and follow through on its good intentions.