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Pot program could end, McLellan says

Minister of Health questions approval of medicinal marijuana before clinical trials: Scientific proof sought

Tuesday, July 15, 2003
Tom Blackwell
National Post

The federal government would likely scrap its controversial medical marijuana program if trials about to get underway conclude the drug has no therapeutic benefit, Anne McLellan, the federal Minister of Health, suggested yesterday.

Ms. McLellan also offered veiled criticism of Allan Rock, her predecessor in the job, for approving the limited use of marijuana for medicinal purposes before finding out if it had any scientifically proven value.

She was asked what would happen if the trials to be conducted by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and others found that marijuana did not benefit patients, or that any benefits were offset by harmful side-effects.

"As far as I'm concerned, we are a department of health. You work on the basis of approving products, therapies, drugs that have a medicinal benefit," she replied during a meeting with the National Post's editorial board.

"If it doesn't have a medicinal benefit, I don't know why the department of health would approve it as such."

The medical marijuana program, approved under Mr. Rock's watch, currently provides exemptions from marijuana possession laws to about 500 people suffering conditions ranging from AIDS to glaucoma.

Many swear that the drug provides relief from symptoms that no other medicine offers.

Eric Nash, a licensed medical marijuana grower and part of the stakeholders' committee that advises Health Canada, said yesterday that Ms. McLellan's comments about the future of the program do not mean much.

"That [completing the trials] will take several years and she may not even be health minister down the road," he said.

"In the meantime, the courts are setting the agenda.... Basically, it really doesn't matter what she says.

"It really is a moot point."

He said he and his wife grow pot for multiple sclerosis sufferers and it seems to have a "huge" benefit for them.

Regulators should approach marijuana like a natural remedy and not base its legitimacy on a battery of trials as they would with a prescription drug, Mr. Nash said.

A number of court rulings have backed demands of the chronically or terminally ill for legal access to marijuana. One judgment led to an announcement by Ms. McLellan last week that the government would, temporarily at least, supply pot and pot seeds to medical marijuana users through their doctors.

But the minister's lukewarm endorsement of the new service and details of the plan left advocates of the drug largely unhappy.

Ms. McLellan stressed yesterday that there is no definitive evidence of marijuana's benefits, and that her department is not in the business of approving products whose benefit has not been proven.

She said Mr. Rock introduced the program out of compassion. She was asked if approving medical marijuana first, then setting up trials, was turning the process around backward.

"That would be up to you to determine," she said.

"I believe that as a department of health, it is important for us not to approve products, devices, therapies without requiring the necessary clinical trials that are, I think, more or less a given ... in this country."

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