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.

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.

via : Ottawa Citizen

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