Health Minister Cancels Federal Medical Marijuana Program

Health Minister Anne McLellan says that she feels uncomfortable with the idea of people smoking pot to relieve pain, and that Ottawa will not distribute marijuana for medicinal purposes until clinical trials are completed — trials that have yet to begin. Interview with Jim Bridges of the recently raided Toronto Compassion Club.
Bascially the Feds are saying they will not supply any patients with cannabis and they are going to bust anybody who will. (Thanks to Flash and Jill for the Pot TV copy).
Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Ottawa shelves medicinal pot

Uneasy McLellan backs off plan to supply patients with federally grown marijuana

Andre Picard, Carolyn Abraham
Globe and Mail

Canada’s Health Minister has all but snuffed out the government’s much-ballyhooed plans to supply marijuana as medicine.

Anne McLellan says that she feels uncomfortable with the idea of people smoking pot to relieve pain, and that Ottawa will not distribute marijuana for medicinal purposes until clinical trials are completed — trials that have yet to begin.

Ending months of silence and speculation that the federal government may be backing away from its controversial $5.7-million project to grow “medicinal-grade” marijuana, Ms. McLellan made her comments yesterday while speaking to doctors at the annual meeting of the Canadian Medical Association in Saint John.

The doctors have led a powerful lobby against prescribing pot as medicine, arguing it has not been tested for safety or efficacy. As well, sources say, Ms. McLellan has been swayed by concerns from U.S. officials that Canada would be making cannabis more available.

The minister suggested yesterday that the courts forced the government to adopt the controversial marijuana-as-medicine plan, and that she was looking to Canada’s highest court for a way out.

“I hope this whole issue gets before the Supreme Court of Canada fairly soon so we will have the opportunity to reargue this case before the Supreme Court so we can get some clarity about what is happening here,” she said.

But Toronto lawyer Alan Young, who has led court challenges to make marijuana legal and accessible, said Ms. McLellan is either “confused, or she’s being disingenuous.” There is no case heading to the Supreme Court that deals with marijuana as medicine, he said.

In fact, Mr. Young said, the federal government actually opted not to take the medical marijuana issue to the top court after the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the right of Torontonian Terry Parker to smoke pot to ease his epileptic seizures.

It was that landmark decision in 2000 that prompted Ottawa to create its current medical-marijuana program. That is because the court gave the government 12 months to amend the law that made it illegal for sick people to possess pot.

If the government had not acted in that time frame, it would not have been a crime for anyone to possess marijuana.

“The federal Department of Justice made a decision not to appeal to the Supreme Court at that time,” said Mr. Young, who had represented Mr. Parker in the case. What’s more, he noted, Ms. McLellan was the federal justice minister at the time.

The only pot-related case heading to the Supreme Court is to be heard later this fall and it involves the larger question of whether the federal government has the right to bar the recreational use of the drug, Mr. Young said.

Ms. McLellan’s unexpected comments in Saint John followed a question from Kingston physician Raju Hajela and she initially joked, “Just a minute ago, I thought to myself: ‘I’m going to get out of here without a question about medical marijuana.’ “

Dr. Hajela said he was angry about government regulations permitting certain patients to use pot because “there is no scientific evidence for the benefits of marijuana.” A single joint, he said, is as harmful as 10 cigarettes.

The minister, clearly uncomfortable, spoke inconclusively for several minutes in response. Ms. McLellan said marijuana should be subject to the same standards as other prescription drugs and agreed it was hypocritical for her department to allow pot smoking while working to reduce tobacco-smoking rates.

“I understand the issues that we in this room have and feel in relation to the lack of scientific evidence, possible liability issues and the fact that the federal Department of Health does find itself in a slightly ironic position when I am responsible for the single largest campaign in the federal government — the anti-smoking campaign,” she said.

Ms. McLellan then added: “I don’t mean to say that the courts made me do it, or made [former health minister]Allan [Rock] do it, although there is some truth to that. The courts took us down a certain path.”

Mr. Rock, who is now Minister of Industry, met the court-imposed deadline and introduced regulations in 2001 permitting medically qualified patients — anyone from AIDS patients to back-pain sufferers — to use marijuana. The government also hired a company to grow massive quantities of marijuana in an old mine in Flin Flon, Man.

At least 806 patients have qualified under these special regulations to date. But many of them face a desperate Catch-22: being legally entitled to possess a drug that it remains illegal to buy.

None of the 250 kilograms of pot harvested so far has made its way into the hands of patients. What’s more, the government is paying Saskatoon-based Prairie Plant Systems Inc. to produce 400-kilograms of marijuana a year for the next four years.

A group of eight patients is now heading to Ontario Superior Court to get access to the Manitoba supply.

Ms. McLellan said she is “not insensitive to those who feel it helps in their final days or acute-illness situations” but said she owed it to Canadians to ensure that all therapeutic drugs be rigorously tested before approval and use.

Doctors in attendance applauded Ms. McLellan’s speech, in particular her acknowledgment that she felt a “certain level of discomfort” about marijuana as medicine.

The Canadian Medical Association and its insurer, the Canadian Medical Protective Association, have told physicians not to sign patients’ requests to be federally approved to possess cannabis because prescribing an untested drug could leave them vulnerable to legal action.

Henry Haddad, president of the CMA, said that he was “very encouraged” by the Ms. McLellan’s statements.

Contact: [email protected]

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