Dan is a legally blind artist who suffers from glaucoma, diabetes and kidney failure. Until he joined the Vancouver Island Compassion Society (VICS) and began using our services to reduce the intra-ocular eye pressure caused by his glaucoma, he had been robbed and beaten trying to purchase cannabis off the street.
Dan has federal permission to use and grow marijuana, but his health prohibits him from cultivating his own supply. The VICS was the not only the key to maintaining the little sight which remains in Dan’s left eye; his optomologist (who initially suggested Dan try cannabis) has warned him that a stress-related spike in eye pressure could cause a fatal stroke. That’s why when news that the VICS had been busted by the Oak Bay Police reached Dan, he began to fear for his life.
Inadequate and misdirected
In the spring of 1999, the Jim Wakeford med-pot court ruling in Ontario (CC#26 Busted up dates) forced Canada’s federal government to allow cannabis use by people suffering from certain severe health conditions. The feds responded by revealing the “Section 56” exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, a little known clause in Canada’s drug laws which permits the Health Minister to grant special access to any banned substance to anyone, if the Minister deems it to be “for a medical or scientific purpose or otherwise in the public interest.”
Health Canada also pledged seven million dollars over five years for research into medicinal uses of cannabis, and issued a request for business plans in order to establish a domestic supply.
Health Canada’s therapeutic cannabis program is now almost two years old, and although Health Minister Allan Rock often speaks of the progress of the Liberal government on this front, their initiative has shown itself to be misdirected in its efforts, painfully slow to react to changes in laws and attitudes, and completely inadequate at helping those with pressing medical needs.
Health Canada requires that the Section 56 exemption application form be filled with the support of a medical doctor. If you have a supportive, progressive doctor he may not have any objection to following the convoluted legal application, although many doctors have complained about the massive amount of paperwork and increased scrutiny from the government. If your doctor is more conservative, he can simply refuse to assist you in your application.
In British Columbia, doctors were further intimidated by their own union, the BC College of Physicians, which claimed in their Fall 1999 newsletter that any doctor writing a prescription for cannabis will have their name recorded, as “that of a doctor approving marijuana for medical use; the aim being to legalise the substance.”
Even if your doctor is brave and dedicated enough to support your request, it still has to be approved by Health Canada, a process which was originally meant to take three weeks and now averages between six and ten months.
Currently there are about 140 Canadians who have successfully navigated this onerous, arbitrary process and gained the proper exemption to possess, and in some cases grow their own supply of cannabis. Yet there is not a single legal supply of cannabis buds or seeds in Canada. The exemption is there on paper only and does not preclude someone like Dan from having to get it through the black market or through compassion societies like the VICS, which receive no legal protection for their crimes of compassion.
Health Minister Allan Rock has asked that local authorities “exercise discretion” when dealing with users and suppliers of medicinal cannabis, yet this unofficial request has had little impact on local policing efforts. The VICS was both robbed and busted during the first half of November, costing the club nearly $8000 in lost or stolen goods and moving expenses. The Montreal Compassion Club was raided by gun wielding police on February 10, 2000, forcing it to close for six weeks.
Yet as the busts continue to mount we find that the federal government is already lagging far behind on their promises. On December 21, months behind schedule, the feds finally awarded a contract to Prairie Plant Systems, to become Canada’s first official supplier of marijuana. The $5.75 million contract calls for the company to produce 2000 kilos of research-grade buds over five years. Prairie Plant Systems will be growing the federally-sanctioned pot 360 metres underground in an abandoned mine in Flin Flon, Manitoba. Officials say the buds will be ready for use in clinical trials in about one year.
The cannabis will supposedly be available for free to Section 56 exemptees participating in clinical trials, although the government is still unsure how the marijuana will be distributed. Those whose ailments are not being studied will apparently have to continue finding their own supply.
It is clear that the government is being pushed by court decisions rather than actual compassion. Established compassion societies have safely and successfully distributed hundreds of pounds of medicine to those in need over the last five years, and yet the government has yet to make any contact with any of them, even as it puzzles on how to establish a distribution arm for its medical supply. In fact, compassion societies are still often targeted for raids and harassment by local authorities, as there has been no indication from the feds to suggest a potential change in law or policy.
The lengthy nature of the proposed clinical trials suggests that it will be between three and five years before enough research is accumulated to recommend that the whole plant (or whole plant extracts) be pharmaceutically available, a completely unacceptable amount of time to expect chronically and terminally ill people to wait for relief.
The federal government clearly has no interest in growing plant matter for use by the general public. Rather, it appears likely that the federal cannabis supply will be sold off to pharmaceutical companies to process into alternative delivery methods. UK cannabis research company GW Pharmaceuticals (CC#26 UK doc grows pharmaceutical pot) is currently testing a sublingual delivery method in Europe; Health Canada is expected to approve a Canadian version of the study within the next few months.
Low quality bud
The 5-6% THC cannabis which Prairie Plant has been contracted to produce has little chance of being as effective in treating the symptoms of serious ailments as high potency black-market buds.
Recent testing of product from Canada’s biggest med-pot distributor, the BC Compassion Club Society (with over 1200 members), has shown that some of their black-market cannabis has up to 25% THC. In other words, the federal pot supply is likely going to be substandard, inadequate and will skew the results of any study dependent on it. The compassion societies learned long ago that stronger cannabis meant less smoked product; in other words, the better the marijuana, the more successful the treatment.
The government completely ignored the recommendations of key stakeholders like the Canadian Cannabis Coalition (made up of compassion societies and harm reduction groups from across Canada) that attempted to address some of these concerns in a policy paper presented to the feds in the spring of 2000. Precious time and taxpayer money will be wasted if issues such as potency and strain selection are not quickly addressed.
What clinical trials?
Furthermore, Health Canada has not yet approved a single proposed clinical trial to date. Suzanne Desjardins, the director of Evaluation and Research for the Bureau of Controlled Substances, told Cannabis Culture that the only study currently being considered is an HIV/AIDS trial out of the Community Research Initiative in Toronto. She said that if and when the actual study protocol is approved, Health Canada will contact the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to request an immediate supply of smokeable product, even though NIDA’s pot is well-known to be very low in potency and quality.
So in the last two years Health Canada has made much noise and spent a lot of money on its medicinal cannabis program, yet the sad reality is that not a single clinical trial has yet been approved, not a single gram has been grown or imported, and not a single Canadian, regardless of their legal status, has received any cannabis products from a legal source. Meanwhile, compassion societies and their suppliers keep getting busted, medicinal users keep getting harassed and arrested; and the sickest in our society continue to suffer unnecessarily.
The Canadian government has an incredible opportunity to change some unjust, antiquated laws and directly assist sick and suffering Canadians. The eyes of the world will be watching the implementation of this program and studying the results of our clinical trials; we have a responsibility to do this well, and to do this wisely.
? Philippe Lucas is currently charged with 2 counts of possession and trafficking as a result of the November 14 raid on the VICS.
? Vancouver Island Compassion Society: tel (250) 216-8030; website www.thevics.com. Donations of cash and bud are greatly appreciated.