Tuesday June 5 6:20
By MICHAEL MACDONALD
ST. JOHN'S, Nfld. (CP) - Federal Health Minister Allan Rock may be ready to debate Canada's marijuana laws, but three Atlantic health ministers had little to say when asked their opinion Tuesday.
There were only a few bad jokes and nervous laughter when the issue came up at the end of a meeting between health ministers from Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. "It hasn't been a burning issue within our department ... pardon the pun," said Gerald Smith, Newfoundland's acting health minister.
"It's pretty far down the agenda in terms of priorities for this province."
P.E.I. Health Minister Jamie Ballem said much the same thing.
"I don't have enough evidence for me to make a recommendation to my cabinet colleagues that we should be taking a look at that," he said.
The response from New Brunswick's Dennis Furlong was more revealing.
"I'd like to say I haven't inhaled and I haven't used it," the medical doctor said as his colleagues chortled beside him.
When asked how he felt about recent calls to decriminalize simple possession of the drug, Furlong said he wasn't sure what his position would be.
But he said he was opposed to prescribing marijuana for medicinal purposes unless it was in pill form - something he used to do when he was practising.
"Our position on inhaling smoke of any sort (is that) I'm not in favour of medical utilization," he said. "I don't agree with inhaling any leaf product."
Last month, Rock said he was interested in having a "frank discussion" on whether Canada's marijuana laws were outdated.
But he didn't go as far as federal Tory Leader Joe Clark, who called for decriminalization of the simple possession of small amounts.
The House of Commons has passed a unanimous motion to create a committee to examine the issue of non-medical drugs in Canada.
"Let's make our policies fit current times and needs in Canada," Rock said at the time.
Rock's comments followed an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that called on Ottawa to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.
Only 40 Canadians have obtained special permits to use cannabis to relieve the symptoms of cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis or epilepsy.
For anyone else, simple possession is a criminal offence.
"The minimal negative health effects of moderate use would be attested to by the estimated 1.5 million Canadians who smoke marijuana for recreational purposes," the medical journal said.
"The real harm is the legal and social fallout. About half of all drug arrests in Canada are for simple possession. ... Many lead to jail terms or fines and all result in that indelible social tattoo: a criminal record."
Among other things, the Atlantic ministers said they talked about the need to share information about the efficacy of pharmaceutical products, and the desire to share medical resources on a regional basis.
"Because we're an individual province, there's an expectation that we should have all the services they have in downtown Toronto - or at least Maclean's magazine thinks we should," said Ballem, referring to a recent survey that put his province near the bottom of the list in terms of health services.
"That's my dig at them."
Nova Scotia Health Minister Jamie Muir was scheduled to attend the meeting, but cancelled because health-care workers in the Halifax area have voted in favour of a strike.