On Saturday, April 7, Canadian Health Minister Allan Rock unveiled the proposed new medical cannabis regulations. 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 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.
A great setback
Pro-medpot advocates, users and lawyers see the newly proposed regulations as an enormous setback designed to make medical cannabis harder to get, not easier.
The regulations will go into effect on July 31, and include three categories under which patients might receive 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 medpot patients will be willing to apply, given Health Canada’s penchant for releasing such information to the press and police. The proposed regs invasively require that applicants – like doctors – supply tons of personal info, as well as two current photos of themselves. Additionally, medpot applicants may be subjected to expensive application fees.
“It seems to me that it makes it harder [for medpot 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 medpot 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.
It is important to remember that the new regulations are only in the proposal stage and that there is still time to give input. If enough people contact the Minister of Health with concerns about the new regulations, it may put pressure on the ministry to make some changes.
* Download a pdf file containing the new regs at www.hc-sc.gc.ca/english/azindex_mno.htm#marij (scroll down to “Proposed regulations governing the possession and production of marijuana for medical purposes.”)
* Contact Bruce Erickson at the Ministry of Health with your input on the new regs: Bruce Erickson, Office of Controlled Substances, Department of Health, Address Locator 3503D, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 1B9; tel (613) 957-2826; fax (613) 946-4224; email [email protected]
* PLEASE NOTE: all input on the new regs must be received by Bruce Erickson no later than May 6, 2001.