Tuesday September 24 5:19 PM EST
By JAMES MCCARTEN
A motley band of seriously ill people crowded into court Thursday to do battle with Ottawa over a scheme to permit the use of medical marijuana they say violates their constitutional rights.
The group, with conditions ranging from AIDS and hepatitis C to epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, wants to strike down federal rules governing medicinal pot, as well as the law that makes possession a criminal offence. "This is about the right to make fundamental personal decisions," Toronto lawyer and longtime cannabis crusader Alan Young told Superior Court Justice Sidney Lederman.
"The right to make personal decisions has been called fundamentally deserving of the highest protection."
Canada's Medical Marijuana Access Regulations, or MMARs, were supposed to honour previous court decisions by allowing those with serious illnesses to choose marijuana as a means to treat their symptoms.
Instead, they're laden with obstacles and red tape that prevents more deserving people from exemption than it permits, Young said.
The regulations demand medical declarations that few doctors are willing to provide given the legal consequences, he argued. And they make it impossible for a doctor to recommend a dosage, since the drug remains unregulated in Canada.
Even those who do win a legal exemption - more than 300 people in Canada are currently permitted by Ottawa to smoke pot for medical reasons - are forced to break the law, resorting to black-market weed because the government is dragging its heels on efforts to cultivate a pure supply for clinical trial.
"They're exposed to the criminal sub-culture; they're exposed to rip-offs," Young said of his clients. "They're exposed to an unknown substance called marijuana, which can contain contaminants and adulterants."
There are seven marijuana consumers included in Young's group of applicants, along with a caregiver, the Toronto Compassion Centre. Three other applicants are also participating in the hearings.
If they can't get the regulations thrown out, the group is willing to settle for access to the federal government's stash: pot grown in a Manitoba mineshaft under a $5.7-million contract for clinical trials.
Federal Health Minister Anne McLellan has so far refused to allow the marijuana to be distributed because she says it simply isn't pure enough.
The whiff of weed was unmistakable during a mid-morning break in the proceedings, as several of the applicants took advantage of the 15-minute recess to light up a joint on the courthouse steps.
"It's very difficult for us to get permits, since doctors won't sign the necessary forms," said Marco Renda, a 42-year-old Ontario man who uses pot to combat the symptoms of hepatitis C.
"The government should honour what the court has decided and make it easier for medical patients to receive medical marijuana."
Renda said he doesn't worry about the quality of his marijuana because he grows his own. Those who are forced to buy from a dealer aren't so lucky, applicant Alison Myrden complained.
"It's nothing but sticks and stems and seeds one day, and it's a whole bag of bud the next," said Myrden, who suffers from multiple sclerosis as well as an associated condition known as trigeminal neuralgia.
"This is absolutely outrageous, what they're doing to these Canadian people. These are sick and dying people."
For those suffering from serious illnesses, marijuana is invaluable as an anti-inflammatory and a mild painkiller, as well as battling nausea and stimulating appetite, said Young.
"AIDS patients and cancer patients who basically can't eat because of their medication can smoke a joint, and then they are able to eat," he said.
"I think marijuana is primarily responsible for keeping most AIDS patients from wasting, which is the only reason they die these days, because the anti-viral medications keep them alive and kicking."
Young, who noted in his arguments that former health minister Allan
Rock was poised to release Ottawa's marijuana to those exempted from the
law, said he thinks Ottawa is under pressure from U.S. authorities not
to proceed with its plan.
Copyright © 2000 Canadian Press