The Canadian College of Physicians and Surgeons is telling doctors that medical pot users are “hop heads” out to scam welfare. The Minister of Health, Allan Rock, opened a program this summer to allow sick people to apply for exemptions to legally grow and use marijuana, but so far he has only given the exemptions to two people. Medical cannabis clubs are preparing to spring up across Canada, yet may be faced with increased oppression.
A new baby is about to be born, a baby of weed and seed. The question is, will it be the healthy baby of a government that keeps the public trust? Or will it be the sick, malnourished child of a government that seeks to starve the sick and dying of their medicine?
This summer, the Minister of Health chose a Canadian research firm to conduct clinical trials of medical marijuana. The Community Research Initiative of Toronto (CRIT), which specializes in exploring treatments for those living with HIV and AIDS, announced in early July that it will conduct the tests as soon as the government decides where the cannabis will come from.
Heading up the CRIT are James Austin, a researcher and expert in epidemic diseases, and Dr Don Kilby, director of Health Services at the University of Ottawa. Dr Kilby also helped Jean Pariseau obtain one of the only two exemptions to use and grow medical cannabis given by the minister since the program began earlier this year.
One of the most important questions facing the CRIT – indeed one of the most important questions facing the whole medical cannabis movement in Canada – is where will the wonderful weed come from?
If clinical cannabis trials are going to hold up against scientific criticism, the source will have to be top quality, free from fungus and disease, and identical in biochemical composition across a wide range of samples. Otherwise, the reliability of the tests will be questioned. For these reasons, researchers like Kilby and Austin are shying away from cannabis produced by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), infamous for its schwaggy, low-potency buds.
That leaves either Britain’s GW Pharmaceuticals, who grow loads of high-quality cannabis buds under government licence, in a huge hidden greenhouse in the English countryside, or else a Canadian supply. Health Minister Rock claims that there are problems with acquiring cannabis in Canada.
“In the UK, we know that the source has the most beneficial medicinal qualities,” says Dr Kilby, comparing UK cannabis to that produced in the US. “We are hoping the government will go with the UK source because we are more comfortable with that one.”
Where’s the pot?
Yet at least two Canadian outfits are ready and able to provide high-quality cannabis. The Grand Forks Hemp Company and the Vancouver Compassion Club have already sent letters to the Ministry of Health, informing them of the availability of home-grown cannabis. The Ministry replied, with form letters.
When questioned in August, researcher James Austin was surprised to hear about the potential Canadian supply.
“We were told [by the Ministry of Health]that they were planning on setting up something in Canada,” says Austin, “but that it would be a couple years before they could produce enough for research.”
According to Brian Taylor, mayor of the BC town of Grand Forks and co-founder of the Grand Forks Hemp Company (GFHC), his company can have high grade, laboratory tested and controlled cannabis ready for trials within six months. He has a detailed business plan that was submitted to the Ministry of Health in early September.
A clean game
“Look at all the people in power who will step up to the plate if they can come into a clean game,” says Taylor. “So that’s what we are going to give them. What we propose is high wire fences and outside security. We have a contract with the RCMP to tour the site with the green team. We have a contract with an outside laboratory to test the product.”
Taylor is also prepared to produce convincing placebos for clinical trials.
“They need a 0.5% THC cigarette that smokes and tastes like a more potent one, so that they can do double-blind tests,” Taylor says. “What we can do is dry the THC out of the cannabis with heat or other extraction methods. But the other answer is that we take low THC and bring it to maturity just like we would quality smoke.”
Taylor’s insights on matters cannabis reflect a truth that may be hard for the government to swallow: expertise in these matters is not to be found in universities.
“What they need now,” says Taylor, “is a partnership between researchers and experienced growers. But this is not a bureaucratic decision, this is a political decision. In their minds I represent the potsmokers, those that are civilly disobedient. They need to make a paradigm shift and look at us as an opportunity. We are the people who know what we are doing.”
If participants in the clinical trials don’t get the high-quality product that they are used to, says Taylor, they will buy it from the nearest street dealer. Clinical trials would then be largely useless for determining the effects of the exact strains of cannabis being tested by researchers. Regardless, the government may be too rigid to let the most experienced growers do the job.
Terry Parker, who won the constitutional right to use cannabis to control his epilepsy in December of 1997 (see CC#12, Canada’s first legal marijuana user), remembers what the NIDA used to call “pot” in the 70’s.
“I got this Mississippi pot through the Addiction Research Foundation back in ’79,” says Parker. “I was a subject in a study called ‘The Effects of Marijuana on Seizure Activity in Men,’ conducted by Peter Carlen and Mary-Anne Lee. They had taken some leaf and sprayed it with synthetic THC. All they found was that synthetic THC was not pot and didn’t affect seizure activity.”
While growers and activists plough wrinkles into their foreheads with concerns about how the government will control medical cannabis supplies, there are also growing concerns among medical cannabis users.
So far, the government has only concerned itself with the relationship between marijuana and AIDS. The only two section 56 exemptions, which give the ill the legal sanction to grow and use medical cannabis, are for people living with AIDS. Similarly, the clinical trials to be conducted by the ministry will be done on AIDS patients. An admirable start, but there are other sick people suffering as well.
Grant Krieger, an MS sufferer (see CC#16, The Long Harm of the Law) who co-founded the Universal Compassion Club (UCC) in Calgary, has seen the effects of Health Minister Rock’s restrictive policy concerning exemptions.
“I had one lady with breast cancer come to me and she sat on the couch in the house and she was crying,” recalls Krieger. “She said she went to her doc to get the forms filled out and the doc said he couldn’t sign them because the judge would take her kids away. When she started to pull down her top to show her missing breast I told her that wasn’t necessary.”
Robbin Basaraba, who suffers from fybromyalga and uses cannabis to manage the pain, and her husband, Allan, have been raided twice in the past six years for growing Robbin’s medicine in their home in Orillia, Ontario.
“Robbin has been using marijuana for the past 9 to 10 years to help her with her problems,” writes Allan in a letter to Cannabis Culture. “When she uses it, she is able to sleep, she doesn’t get migraines, her pain is dulled, she is able to go on short walks. When she doesn’t have marijuana, she can’t sleep because of the migraines, she lays on the sofa all day trying to get some rest, her body throbs with pain, to the point where she gets sick several times a day and her body continuously shakes from the inside out.”
Court costs make it prohibitive for the Basarabas to defend a plea of innocence, and have left them grossly in debt. They’ve faced innumerable difficulties, including having friends and relatives turn them over to the police, having their plants thieved by locals, and having Robbin’s condition misdiagnosed.
Now they face the continued threat of police breaking in the door, maybe killing their dog, and perhaps firing a few rounds into Allan or Robbin in the process. Luckily, the last time they were raided, on August 28, 1998, the Basarabas did everything right. They met the police at the door, thus avoiding having to replace it after securing their dog in a cage.
“They were still threatening that if the dog got out that they would shoot him,” recalls Allan. “We didn’t want to get him shot. You read about it all the time, like at those kids’ birthday party in Abbotsford.”
Robbin has made an application for a section 56 exemption to the Ministry of Health, but like almost everyone else that has made the application, she still hasn’t heard the ministry’s decision. On May 25, Robbin and Allan each plead guilty to charges of cultivation, possession, and possession for the purposes of trafficking. Although the crown wanted them behind bars, a compassionate judge gave Robbin a one month conditional sentence, and Allan an eleven month conditional sentence, both to be served out of jail.
Prescription for prohibition
Cannabis Culture called the College of Physicians and Surgeons in August, and spoke to Deputy Registrar Dr Vanandel. We asked him what the college thought about doctors writing letters asking for section 56 exemptions for their patients.
“The danger is in it becoming a diet for people on welfare,” Vanandel complained. “If people on welfare say that their doctor tells them they need a special diet, then they can get some extra money. If we say that they need marijuana, then every hophead in the country will be banging on your door asking for marijuana.”
Vanandel advised that doctors only write letters saying that their patients have a medical condition, not that cannabis might help them with their illnesses. He also advised that they abstain from writing pot prescriptions altogether.
“Marijuana is not a recognized drug,” spat Vanandel. “It is an illegal drug that is not available for prescription. Physicians are being sucked into the controversy. What we are saying is that we should let those who are experts in pharmacology make these decisions, not doctors.”
UCC co-founder Grant Krieger disagrees passionately with Dr Vanandel.
“I don’t want an expert in pharmacology making decisions about what I am going to put into my body,” says Krieger. “All pharmaceuticals are based on herbs. And I’d rather be putting herbs than pharmaceuticals in my body. They are better for you, and safer.”
Lawyer John Conroy, one of Canada’s foremost experts on marijuana and the law, also disagrees with some of Vanandel’s claims.
“Under schedule I,” says Conroy, “codeine, morphine, heroin, coca, cocaine and amphetamines are all listed and can be prescribed. But the college makes a special exception for marijuana. Doctors can’t prescribe because they are being told that they will be charged with aiding and abetting.”
Conroy has examined the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in depth, and explained that the act allows doctors to prescribe marijuana at their discretion.
Right or privilege?
There are other signs that the government continues to grasp for control and restriction of the growing demand for medical cannabis. Crown prosecutors are still gearing up to appeal a 1997 decision that gave Terry Parker the constitutional right to use and grow cannabis to treat his severe epilepsy.
The crown’s case will reach the Ontario Court of Appeal in October. Alan Young, professor at York University and famous defender of cannabis, is Parker’s lawyer.
“The Parker appeal concerns the issue of whether an exemption can be granted under the Charter of Rights,” writes Young. “Section 56 has nothing to do with the Charter. So even though the government has now recognized the medical value of pot, this does not mean that they’ve acknowledged a constitutional right to this medicine – this latter question is the one to be addressed at the Parker appeal.”
The real issue in the Parker case is control. If Parker wins his case, it will make it difficult – if not impossible – for the Ministry of Health to impose restrictions on access to medical cannabis.
“Non-profit that’s the way medical cannabis should be,” says Krieger. “Brian Mulroney gave pharmaceutical firms legislation on patents for all the new pharmaceuticals that are coming out on the market. Now Mulroney sits on the board of directors of one of these corporations and pulls in a six-figure paycheque.”
Krieger’s sentiments reflect awareness about the historical role of pharmaceutical corporations. To their financial benefit, pharmaceutical corporations have long supported the prohibition of cannabis, and marketed expensive, synthetic versions that are less effective than the real thing.
Pharmaceutical control might take any number of forms. It could come by the government regulating the way cannabis is administered. Health Minister Rock has been in talks with GW Pharmaceuticals to produce an inhaler similar to the kind used by asthma sufferers. Pharmaceutical control might also be leveraged through patents on cannabis genetics, or through the production of an effective synthetic cannabis. In the long term, these kinds of restrictions might not benefit the budding Canadian medical cannabis industry, as they could ensure that the profits went to a single large corporation.
The continuing restrictions placed on medical cannabis by government officials not only breeds suspicions about pharmaceutical companies, it also raises questions about whether medical marijuana will ever be truly legal for all who need it. Canadians with illnesses continue to suffer in courtrooms and jails, and the Minister of Health’s step forward last summer is so far only a single, small step.
– Mayor Brian Taylor: tel (250) 442-5166; fax (250) 442-5167; email [email protected]
– James Austin of the Community Research Initiative of Toronto: tel (416) 408-1041
– John Conroy, lawyer: tel (604) 852-5110; fax (250) 859-3361; email [email protected]
– Terry Parker: tel (416) 533-7756
– Grant Krieger of the Universal Compassion Club: tel (403) 286-4088
– Canadian Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons: tel (604) 733-7758
– Allan and Robbin Basaraba: tel (705) 325-3565
– Reverend Damuzi: email [email protected]