Medical marijuana program thrown for a loop when U.S. refused to supply seeds
May 7, 2002
OTTAWA (CP) -- U.S. drug-enforcement authorities threw Health Canada's medical marijuana program for a loop by refusing to provide access to their research-quality supply of seeds.
The story about what went wrong in the medical pot program emerged Tuesday for the first time, as Health Minister Anne McLellan explained protracted delays in providing marijuana to eligible patients.
The program was intended for people dying or suffer from specific painful conditions, both for research and for compassionate reasons.
Former health minister Allan Rock announced details of the program in April 2001, saying the marijuana was supposed to be available by January.
But it emerged Tuesday at a committee meeting that U.S. authorities refused last year to supply Canada with reliable, tested seeds. The U.S. decision wasn't announced at the time, nor was it mentioned by Rock.
That left Health Canada to use seeds police had confiscated, which have produced a crop containing at least 185 different varieties of pot, from dynamite to dud quality.
McLellan isn't giving any new target dates for availability.
"We remain committed to ensuring that eligible Canadians have access to a standardized supply of research-grade marijuana for medical purposes," McLellan told the Commons health committee.
"While our policy has not changed, our time lines have."
The situation raises questions about how Rock could announce a high-profile plan to grow medical marijuana without having an assured source of seeds.
In December 2000, Prairie Plant Systems of Saskatoon was chosen to provide Health Canada with quality, standardized marijuana, to be delivered by January 2002.
The projection was based on the assumption that Prairie Plant Systems would have access to reliable, tested seeds, McLellan said.
Assistant deputy Health Minister Dann Michols said Health Canada negotiated for months to get seeds from the U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse, which did marijuana research that has ended.
"They had the only legal source of supply of marijuana but they needed clearance from the Drug Enforcement Agency and it didn't come." said Michols.
He said he didn't know why access was refused, but conceded there are people in the U.S. government opposed to research on marijuana's benefits.
Michols said Prairie Plant Systems will have to sort through the seeds they have to find those with the right characteristics to establish a standardized supply. That could take months.
McLellan said problems are to be expected since Health Canada's effort to make medical marijuana available is the first such program in the world.
Once a standardized, potent supply of marijuana has been developed, Health Canada will conduct clinical trials to establish its therapeutic benefits, which will take additional years.
"No one is more concerned than I am in relation to this situation but . . . trial and error is going to be a part of it and I think people have to be patient," said McLellan.
"These are medical trials and therefore we have to make sure that we have a standardized product. If not, what would you be saying about the Department of Health and what would you be saying about me?"
The department will continue to permit people with a doctor's approval to grow their own pot, or get someone to grow it for them, even though that product obviously won't be standardized.