Monday August 19 9:36 PM EST
By CHRIS MORRIS
SAINT JOHN, N.B. (CP) - Federal Health Minister Anne McLellan has admitted to feeling uncomfortable about the issue of medical marijuana and how it fits in with her other duties, such as anti-smoking campaigns.
McLellan told the annual meeting of the Canadian Medical Association on Monday she's anxious for the Supreme Court of Canada to settle legal questions surrounding medicinal pot so that everyone, including prescribing physicians, can be on more solid ground.
As well, she said there are still uncertainties about the health effects of marijuana and whether it is truly beneficial for people seeking relief from chronic medical conditions.
"I feel a certain degree of discomfort around this issue," McLellan told doctors attending the association's annual meeting in Saint John, N.B.
"Therefore, while not insensitive to those who believe it helps them in their final days or in an acute illness situation, I do believe we owe it to all Canadians to ensure that we are doing the kinds of things we'd expect to do in relation to any other drug."
McLellan was given a round of applause for her cautious approach. The medical association, which represents more than 53,000 physicians across Canada, is concerned about liability issues surrounding marijuana prescriptions and use.
The federal government came up with a set of rules last year which say that, unless a person wanting to use medical marijuana is terminally ill and expected to die within a year, he or she must supply declarations from as many as two medical specialists.
The specialists must state there are more benefits than risks to use of the marijuana and recommend a dosage.
The Canadian Medical Association, at least two of its provincial counterparts and the insurer for Canadian doctors have warned physicians against signing the declarations.
"It's estimated that one marijuana joint is as harmful as about 10 cigarettes," said Dr. Raju Hajela of Kingston, Ont., as he asked McLellan to state her position during a question-and-answer session.
"There's no scientific evidence for the benefit. In my clinical practice, I see the harmful effects every day."
McLellan said she understands the issue, including the lack of scientific evidence and possible liability issues for physicians.
"As well as the fact that the federal Department of Health finds itself in a slightly ironic situation where I am responsible for the single largest campaign in the federal government, which is the anti-smoking campaign."
Last summer, Ottawa amended federal drug laws to allow a limited number of patients suffering from conditions such as multiple sclerosis, HIV, cancer and Crohn's disease to obtain a special exemption to smoke marijuana to relieve their conditions.
McLellan won't release any of the marijuana being grown for the government to distribute to sick and dying patients until it has been tested in clinical trials.
She told the medical association the trials are essential.
"I take very seriously the fact that we're called the Department of Health," McLellan said.
"When we approve drugs, we demand scientific evidence based on clinical trials in relation to the effects, both good and bad, to those who would take a certain drug, substance or product. I believe clinical trials in relation to the use of medical marijuana are absolutely key."
However, the stipulation suggests that the government marijuana, being
grown in an old mine Flin Flon, Man., won't be made available to severely
sick or dying patients for years, if ever.
Copyright © 2000 Canadian Press