Last summer, the Ontario Supreme Court told the Canadian government to change the cannabis laws within one year, or the court would repeal pot prohibition altogether. The issue was medical use… the courts had decided that the previous “Section 56” system for granting Canadian med-pot patients access to marijuana was not sufficient. As the deadline approached, some medical cannabis users wrung their hands in hopes that an election-wearied, sleepy-eyed government would miss the deadline, and cannabis laws would be extinct.
On Saturday, April 7, Health Minister Allan Rock made a press release, announcing that he was about to unveil the proposed new regulations, and briefly described the changes he would make to the med-pot application process. The changes sounded excellent. The minister was happy. The press was happy. And no one would know how bad the regulations really were until after the media frenzy died down, because the actual regulations were kept secret until the following Monday.
“Canada is acting compassionately by allowing people who are suffering from grave and debilitating illnesses to have access to marijuana for medical purposes,” Allan Rock told the press. “Today’s announcement is the next important step. It will bring greater clarity to the process for Canadians who require the use of this drug to alleviate symptoms.”
CTV, Global, and CBC National News greeted the proposed regulations with celebratory announcements, as though the Ministry of Health had finally answered the prayers of medical cannabis users across Canada. “The rules should make it easier for people with serious illnesses to use the drug legally,” reported CBC’s Ian Hanaman Singh, naive of the real consequences of the regs.
Indeed the minister’s press release promised what sounded like a good deal: the elimination of limits on how much pot a patient can have “in favour of individual recommendations by a physician”, an annual renewal process instead of the current 6-month renewal process under Section 56, and provisions for patients to designate a cannabis supplier.
Hoping for better
Some med-pot patients have been waiting years for their applications to be processed. Some ? like Robert Neron (aka Bob Day James) and John Depuis ? had been raided by police while waiting for their application to be processed, and became tired of waiting.
On April 3, John “the Engineer” Turmel was in federal court with the two med-pot users, arguing that they had waited long enough for their Section 56 exemptions. On April 13, Federal Court judge Paul Rouleau agreed, and chastised Health Canada for taking so long. The judge was also shocked to discover that the RCMP had begun investigating chronic Distonia sufferer Robert Neron exactly one day after Neron filed his application with Health Canada, fueling speculation that his name had been passed directly from Health Canada bureaucrats to the RCMP.
“We actually won three victories,” said Turmel. “The judge said that such raids were unnecessary and offered to step in with Health Canada. He gave the Health Minister 30 days to respond to Neron’s and Depuis’ demands for Section 56 exemptions, or he promised to bring Health Canada into court. And when Neron told the judge that it was difficult for him to travel because of his illness [several hundred kilometers to the federal court], the judge said, ‘don’t worry we’ll come to you if we have to.'”
A great setback
When the new medical marijuana regulations were released, med-pot advocates, users and lawyers around the country were stunned to discover that the new rules made legal medical cannabis even harder to get.
The regulations will go into effect on July 31, and include three categories under which patients might receive legal medical bud. The first category includes anyone so sick that a General Practitioner (GP) ? a regular family doctor ? believes they will die within a year. The second category includes people with symptoms attributable to diseases like AIDS (or HIV infection), cancer, MS and epilepsy, but not those with hepatitis or glaucoma, two illnesses which benefit greatly from cannabis use. The third category includes anyone with an illness not included in category two, but who demonstrates that marijuana will alleviate their symptoms.
Pot patients in the first category (with only a year to live) need only get the approval of their doctor. But pot patients in the second category will have to find a medical specialist willing to attest that “all conventional therapies” have been tried and found “medically inappropriate.” Pot patients who fall into the third category will have to find two willing specialists. Medical cannabis law-expert and lawyer John Conroy has serious misgivings about the silliness and contradictions inherent in the requirements.
“If you are in category one and you survive longer than two years, you are obligated to get out of category one,” said Conroy. “So if marijuana has the unfortunate effect of prolonging your life, then it is harder to get!”
“I know many other medicines that are far more powerful, much more dangerous and have far more significant side effects that are not regulated in this way,” Conroy argued. “You can market a powerful drug as a manufacturer and then need only a normal doctor to prescribe the medicine…but marijuana, now you need to see a specialist. Here it is not a matter of approving the drug, it is a matter of approving the patient.”
The proposed regulations raise serious questions about how many specialists and doctors will be willing to support an application for medical marijuana. Last year, Canadian medical licensing authorities discouraged doctors from prescribing medical cannabis with vague threats about recording their names and endangering their licenses. Under the new regulations, doctors who prescribe pot will have to supply Health Canada with reams of personal information including their provincial medical license numbers.
The Ministry of Health threatens to provide all of this information to the provincial authority responsible for licensing that doctor if the Ministry of Health believes that the doctor has “contravened a rule of conduct established by the [medical licensing]authority.” Which, ironically, might include a rule against prescribing cannabis to patients.
Health Canada will also tattle on doctors for prescribing cannabis if the doctor is found guilty of a drug offense (like smoking pot), or if the doctor makes a “false statement under these regulations.” So if Health Canada disagrees with a doctor’s recommendation that only cannabis can help a particular patient, that doctor might lose his license.
The proposed regs also raise questions about how many med-pot patients will be willing to apply, given Health Canada’s penchant for releasing such information to the press. The proposed regs invasively require that applicants ? like doctors ? supply tons of personal info, as well as two current photos of themselves. Additionally, med-pot applicants may be subjected to expensive application fees.
“It seems to me that it makes it harder [for med-pot patients]to get marijuana from their doctors than before,” complained Conroy. “Before it was just doctors being threatened not to prescribe.”
Closing the Clubs
On the Friday before the new med-pot regulations were announced, the minister of health promised that he would be extending an open hand to compassion clubs around the country. What he didn’t say was that he would be slapping them across the face with it.
Marc Boris St-Maurice, founder of the Montreal Compassion Club and the Canadian Marijuana Party says the new regs are “a horrible disappointment.”
“For compassion clubs it is a huge step backward, because those who apply for an exemption have to mention one of two things, either they are going to produce the marijuana themselves, or they are going to get it from an licensed distributor,” explained Boris. “In Article 4, patients have to name a supplier, and in Article 6 the reason [for refusing the patient’s application]is that the distributor mentioned is not licensed according to the legislation. And there is no licensing for organizations, just individuals. So there are no licenses for compassion clubs. And any patient mentioning that their supplier is a compassion club will be automatically denied.”
Growers will also be heavily scrutinized under the proposed regulations. Growers must pass criminal record checks, supply personal information, and have no prior drug offenses in the past ten years. They can supply only one medical cannabis patient each, and a maximum total of only three growers can operate in a single location. Growers must also make their grow-locations available to unannounced, unwarranted inspections, during which inspectors may snoop through any computer data, records or information, look into any container that might contain marijuana, and “seize any substance” found on the premises.
The proposed regs promise that all personal information will be kept confidential, except in the case of a complaint. Should anyone, a disgruntled neighbour, an ex-spouse, or even a cop, complain about a licensed grower, an inspector will make a record, and the Minister of Health can notify local police forces, initiating an investigation or even a raid against the grower.
Medical growers are unlikely to seek licenses under these conditions, and so medical users who have to name a licensed provider on their application are unlikely to seek government approval, unless they are growing their own pot themselves.This leaves medical cannabis users largely where they were before the new regulations… with no realistic way of getting medical pot from an outside supplier.
A visit from the Minister
Shortly after the newly proposed regs were released, Health Minister Allan Rock met with high-profile compassion club founders Hilary Black (of the Vancouver Compassion Club) and Phillippe Lucas (of the Vancouver Island Compassion Society). Before the meeting was over, one of the two had a disturbing visit from police.
“It was a very weird situation,” said Lucas. “It ended with Hilary getting a phone call from one of her growers getting busted. Still, I think the Minister was surprised to find out how critical of these regulations we were. There was some defensiveness on his part. He kept saying that they have to walk before they can run.”
Lucas is hopeful that his recommendations to the minister will be taken into account before the final draft of the new regulations are released on July 31.
“I am writing a critique of the regs right now to guide them through the process of changing these very important laws,” Lucas said. “My own application for a Section 56 would be invalid under the current regulations. It now takes me eight months to see one specialist. Certainly with the medical crisis this province is facing now, it would be financially over-taxing to expect me to see two specialists, if two were even available for me to see.”
Hopefully, the minister will listen to Canadians’ concerns about the new regulations. Because if the new regulations go unchanged into law on July 31, med-pot patients can look forward to many more years of long waits for their applications, brutal police harassment and endless court challenges.
– Club Compassion du Montreal: email [email protected]; website www.clubcompassion.org
– BC Compassion Club: emails www.thecompassionclub.org/feedback.html; website www.thecompassionclub.org
– Vancouver Island Compassion Society: email [email protected]; website members.home.com/thevicsweb
– Canadian Marijuana Party: email [email protected]; website www.marijuanaparty.com