Tuesday May 12, 2003 - 18:56:39 EST
Ottawa's much-anticipated legislation aimed at decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana would still end up punishing those who need the drug for medical purposes, an advocate for medicinal cannabis said Monday.
"This scheme is essentially picking on poor people," Hilary Black, spokesperson for the British Columbia Compassion Club Society, told a news conference. "People who are ill tend to be living in the most poverty." They are often forced to choose between food and marijuana because the current laws often force users to pay street prices of between $150 to $300 per ounce, said Black.
"The cost of medicinal cannabis right now is closer to the cost of gold than it is to the cost of tomatoes, which in terms of production costs is what it should be closer to," said Black.
Black suggested that health-care insurance help subsidize medicinal marijuana, the same way that prescription drugs are covered.
The federal government is expected to unveil legislation this week aimed at decriminalizing possession of marijuana in amounts below 15 grams.
Decriminalization does not legalize marijuana possession. But instead of mandatory court appearances and the risk of a criminal record, offenders could face fines similar to traffic violations.
Health Canada currently allows approved patients to smoke marijuana to relieve pain and nausea associated with illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease and hepatitis.
But the approval is often difficult and time-consuming to obtain, said Philippe Lucas, director of the Vancouver Island Compassion Society.
And because there's no direct legal supply of marijuana in Canada, approved patients are often forced to buy it on the street.
Lucas, who has hepatitis C, smokes one to two grams of marijuana a day with Health Canada's blessing.
He said allowing the so-called compassion clubs to run distribution programs is safe, effective and doesn't cost taxpayers anything. The clubs supply marijuana for treatment of pain and illnesses.
"What we have at Health Canada, unfortunately, is a complete failure of the system. In over 3½ years and $10 million spent, all Health Canada has been able to do is produce a lot of court injunctions."
In January, Justice Sidney Lederman of Ontario's Superior Court declared Health Canada's access regulations for medicinal marijuana unconstitutional. He gave Ottawa until July 9 to fix the regulations or supply the pot itself. Health Canada has appealed the decision but the deadline remains.
On Monday, Black and Lucas presented nine recommendations to a Health Canada advisory committee studying the issue of access to medicinal marijuana. Making the drug more accessible and more affordable were among their top priorities.
The advisory committee, which meets every three months, is made up of experts in the area of health-care and justice, as well as patients who rely on medicinal marijuana. The group provides advice only, not formal recommendations, to Health Minister Anne McLellan on the issue.
McLellan could not be reached for comment Monday.
A spokeswoman for the minister said the current access program is in good shape.
"We believe the regulations are working well," Farah Mohamed said in an interview from Ottawa.
"There are a number of people in the country who have the ability to get access without fear of prosecution . . . but as we go along we are learning more about what we can try to do better."
Boris St-Maurice, spokesman for the Montreal Compassion Club, said he is frustrated the committee's meetings are private and organizations such as compassion clubs don't have a seat at the table.
"We're concerned about the closed doors, the secrecy, the cloak-and-dagger that's going on around this issue," said St-Maurice.
But Jirina Vlk, a spokeswoman for the committee, said that while the committee members are affiliated with organizations such as Corrections Canada and the Canadian Medical Association, they are asked to sit independently.
"People are asked to join based on their background and experience,"
Vlk said in an interview from Ottawa. "The Compassion Club would be representing
the Compassion Club so their presence there would be different than everyone
© The Canadian Press, 2003