October 10, 2002 Thursday
The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo)
The federal government allows the medical use of marijuana on compassionate grounds, but getting permission means jumping through bureaucratic hoops. And trying to find a supply of pot could be a crime.
It's not as if a thick cloud of intoxicating smoke has billowed over the country since the government took the small step of liberalizing consumption of cannabis as a possible medicine.
Since 1999, when Health Canada's program began, more than 800 of the seriously ill have received a one-year exemption. On the other hand, a Senate committee recently reported that between 300,000 and 600,000 Canadians have been convicted of possession. It's a fact that might send a chill among the gravely ill, such as cancer patients or the estimated 50,000 Canadians suffering from multiple sclerosis who might be tempted to buy the drug without federal immunity.
Ticked off by the government's restrictions, a Toronto group of sick people who rely on the drug to relieve pain and nausea is taking the federal government to court. They want Ottawa to ensure a legal supply instead of having to count on street dealers and pushers.
Health Minister Anne McLellan's reply was to shift responsibility to the Supreme Court to decide on marijuana's legal status. She also decreed that a government-commissioned crop will only be used in clinical trials and not sold to sick people, as originally believed.
The tests are usually conducted over several years before results are published and a substance is approved or rejected for medical use.
McLellan is confusing matters more than they already are: Patients still won't be able to legally buy good quality marijuana or even seeds if they're granted permission to possess the weed, grow it or have it grown for them.
Department spokesman Andrew Swift said, "There is a number of people who do not have a licence to produce marijuana or designated a person to do so for them. Where they get it is their decision." In other words, they're on their own.
Government compassion runs pretty thin when the various conditions for possession and licensing are taken into account. What becomes obvious is that politicians are acutely sensitive to pressure to continue to treat marijuana as an illegal drug.
Opposed to a more liberal approach are police chiefs, the union representing rank-and-file police officers, some medical practitioners and the American government that spends billions of dollars on its war on drugs.
Getting permission could discourage the most stubborn or the most pain-afflicted applicant. Health Canada provides applications and pages of explanation both for patients and doctors.
The sheer detail of information required by the government underlines the message that approval is not to be taken -- or granted -- lightly.
For starters, there's personal identification, a measure beloved by law enforcement organizations, that includes not only a name and address but two copies of a photograph, one for an ID card issued with approval and the other presumably to keep on file.
But here's the tricky part. In theory, the ID card frees the holder from being charged with possession of an illegal substance, if questioned by police.
It's hard to imagine a situation when the cops will be friendly with a suspect holding a bag of dope in one hand while he or she waves an ID in the other.
Thinking themselves streetwise, government lawyers have come up with what must have seemed to them another clever stipulation: Applicants can consent to have personal information, excepting medical records, released to police so they can avoid legal entanglements for possession.
Police must also be given "the maximum amount of dried marijuana" that the ID holder is authorized to have at any time; the quantity is to be prescribed by the patient's doctor.
This requirement seems straightforward on first glance, but isn't.
How many doctors are equipped to measure a legal amount? Besides, if they prescribe more than five grams, they must declare that the health benefits of a high dose outweigh the risks. The fact is they've become less willing to prescribe cannabis, as one Toronto protester pointed out.
It's doubtful that police will bother weighing a prescription to determine if it's within the legal limits. They'll either accept the amount as declared or take a tougher stand and make life difficult for the possessor.
Provisions for securing storage, cultivation and renewing approval for possession are also specified. Still, no matter what its benefits, this political compromise is far short of a humane solution.
Gerald McDuff of Ottawa writes for the Issues Network.
© Copyright 2002 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd