A Medical Marijuana Mess

Canada’s decade-old medical-marijuana scheme is a complete mess. The next government can either try to fight in the courts to maintain a status quo that serves no one; or it can fix the problem. In the absence of legalization or decriminalization, the fix won’t be easy.

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Many people with chronic pain and illness, from epileptics to cancer patients, say they find symptom relief from smoking the drug. The courts have said laws making such relief illegal are a violation of the right to life, liberty and security of the person. That means Parliament must either provide medical exemptions, or dismantle marijuana prohibition.

The most recent decision, from the Ontario Superior Court, has declared that prohibition will be of no effect in three months’ time, unless the government takes some action to bring the country’s laws into line with the Constitution.

The current rules allow people with some conditions to possess and produce marijuana, if they get a doctor -in some cases, a specialist -to fill out the requisite forms. That sounds fair enough, on the surface.

But the court heard evidence that suggests many doctors refuse to sign them for anyone, in any circumstances. Two dozen witnesses said they had been prescribed narcotics and found them either ineffective, dangerously addictive, or not worth the side effects. Their affidavits do not show Canada’s medical profession in a flattering light. One woman with multiple sclerosis says that when she asked about marijuana, her doctor covered her ears and sang, “la, la, la, la, I can’t hear you.” No matter what the problems with Canada’s marijuana rules are, there is no excuse for such unprofessional and callous behaviour. Other doctors, confronted with questions about marijuana, fired their patients or threatened to. In Canada’s health care system, patients are lucky to find family doctors, and have to wait months for specialists -so it’s very easy for doctors to intimidate patients. The judge said many of the physicians involved had been “arbitrary and biased.”

Doctors do have a valid objection to the way the government has dealt with this problem. In 2003, the president of the Canadian Medical Association wrote that “physicians should not be the gatekeepers for a substance that has not gone through the established regulatory review process, as required by all other drugs.” Parliament chose to make them the gatekeepers for medical marijuana, despite a lack of solid, complete information about the risks and benefits and about proper dosing.

It’s baffling that, a decade into the program, there have not been enough clinical trials to answer doctors’ questions, one way or the other.

Part of the explanation might lie in the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has little incentive to study the efficacy of a plant anyone can grow at home. The judge put it this way: “The fact that the drug companies are not producing marijuana products (allegedly because of difficulties with intellectual property questions attaching to the marijuana plant) and are therefore not promoting medical marijuana to physicians, partially explains why physicians are not informed about marijuana and are not accepting the responsibility imposed on them to approve its use.”

If marijuana weren’t illegal, this wouldn’t be an urgent problem. People in pain who felt better after smoking a little pot could do so, while the scientific community took its time to study the question. But there is some urgency, because the law turns people who use marijuana into criminals.

Whether it’s clinically proven to be consistently effective medicine or not, it’s worth asking whether a cancer patient or epileptic who grows and smokes it in his own home is a risk to society. Or anyone else for that matter.

Of course there are some ill effects associated with marijuana use, but the threshold of risk to individuals and society is low compared with over-thecounter products such as alcohol and tobacco and prescription drugs such as OxyContin. If it makes a suffering person feel better, it is silly and cruel to throw that patient in jail.

The Conservative party has sworn that if it forms the next government, it will pass a number of new laws right away. If it’s going to further criminalize marijuana, it has a moral obligation to fix the medicalexemption program. And that program is such a mess that it’s going to take much more than just tweaking the regulations. At the very least, if doctors are going to be the gatekeepers, they’re going to need to see some more research.

– Article from The Ottawa Citizen.