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Ottawa to ship pot to prescribing doctors

It's a 'horrifying, mind-boggling' decision, B.C. Medical Association says

Thursday, July 10, 2003
Pamela Fayerman and Mark Kennedy
Vancouver Sun

The federal government will immediately begin to ship medical marijuana to physicians who prescribe pot to their patients -- a move the head of the B.C. Medical Association calls "horrifying and mind-boggling."

"It boggles the mind. It sounds like a scheme thought up by a bureaucrat trying to make doctors' lives more difficult," BCMA president Dr. John Turner said Wednesday.

"I mean, what would a doctor do with 10 totes of marijuana in the office cupboard? You would have to hope nobody breaks in to your office. I think most doctors would be absolutely horrified by this."

Not only is the federal government willing to ship directly to doctors but also it will do so at bargain-basement prices. Hundreds of chronically ill patients who currently qualify for "medical marijuana" under Health Canada's program had better rush their order though, because within weeks, the government may revoke its official drug supplier status and resume its policy of keeping its stash -- grown at an old mine site in Flin Flon, Man. -- under lock and key.

The marijuana is being offered to Canadians at $5 a gram, enough for about one or two joints, compared with black market street value prices of $10 to $25 a gram.

It will be regularly distributed by courier to a patient's doctor in 30-gram bags and be limited to the amount that the physician says is required to treat the condition.

As well, the government will sell marijuana seeds -- $20 for a packet of 30 -- to sick Canadians to grow their own.

Federal Health Minister Anne McLellan, who announced the plan Wednesday, made it clear she is lukewarm about the new system. "Keep in mind that it was never the intention for us to supply the product," she told reporters.

She said the government wants to be convinced first of the medical benefits of marijuana, but its hand was forced by a court ruling earlier this year that essentially required it to meet a deadline to become a drug supplier -- at least for now.

Turner said he has no idea how many doctors in B.C. prescribe marijuana for pain relief.

Canadian Medical Association president Dr. Dana Hanson said the medical profession believes there should be more scientific proof before medical marijuana is used as a treatment.

Hilary Black, founder of the B.C. Compassion Club, which has been supplying pot to the needy for several years, believes the federal decision is "really just a smokescreen" that Ottawa set up to "look like" it was complying with court decisions, but knowing full well that few doctors across the country would get involved in such a plan.

"Doctors are being told by the CMA (and regulatory bodies) not to put themselves in these positions and I understand why, because they really don't have training in herbal medicine," she said.

Black said of the 8,000 doctors in the province, about 200 have signed the forms the club requires to distribute pot to users who buy it from the non-profit club for $8 to $14 a gram. Poor customers can get one or two grams free each week. There are currently nearly 2,500 compassion club members. Black said she doesn't anticipate the number will go down just because of the Ottawa decision.

She said she understands why doctors would have concerns about security. "We've had break-ins in the past, although not for a few years because we have a great alarm system and this place is built up like a fortress now."

The long-awaited measure was unveiled after years of promises by the government to amend its policies on medical marijuana. But the details of the plan, and the fact that McLellan proceeded with it reluctantly, left critics fuming.

Advocates of more liberalized marijuana policies complained it will do little to ease the suffering of patients and may even make it more difficult for them to obtain pot. NDP MP Libby Davies called McLellan's plan a "shabby" response to the judicial ruling. And Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, who also supports freer access to the drug, said of the plan: "It's bad news. It's temporary. What's the next step? We don't know."

Canadian Alliance MP Rob Merrifield, whose party opposes medical marijuana until validated by studies that say it is an effective treatment, said instead of following the court's dictum, he said, the government should be tabling legislation for parliamentarians to decide the appropriate policy.

The government stressed Wednesday that its new plan is only an "interim policy."

Indeed, Ottawa would not have become a drug supplier for the sick if its hand were not forced by a court decision in January in which Ontario Superior Court Justice Sidney Lederman ruled it was unconstitutional that sick people who qualify for the medical marijuana exemption must turn to illegal means to buy it because Health Canada won't supply it to them.

The regulations allow certain patients with chronic or terminal illnesses to apply to Health Canada for permission to use marijuana. Their applications must be signed by a doctor. So far, 1,145 people have applied and 582 have qualified. They are allowed to grow marijuana on their own or have another approved grower do it for them.

When then-health minister Allan Rock launched the program two years ago, he made it clear that sick people could also buy it from the government.

But when McLellan replaced him in January 2002, she said the Flin Flon crop would only be supplied to people in clinical research trials to determine if it was true that pot helps sick people. Those trials will proceed in Canada this fall.

Lederman gave the government six months -- which ended Wednesday -- to come up with new regulations. The government appealed that ruling, but the hearing isn't until July 29 and 30. Federal officials repeatedly refused to say if they will stop supplying medical marijuana if the government wins its appeal.

Copyright © 2003, Vancouver Sun