Canada needs a medical-marijuana policy that puts patients first

In 2003, I started bringing pot home from school for my dad. He had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1985. My family struggled alongside him as MS took its painful toll. His galaxy of pills did little but turn him into a zombie. Eighteen years later, he discovered cannabis. I procured it for him from my high school, where it was – and remains – ubiquitous. What began as a clandestine therapy of last resort soon became his front-line treatment.

Today, a regimen of cannabis-infused foods helps him control pain, spasms and nausea. It lifts his spirits, perks up his appetite and helps him sleep. The side effects are negligible, especially compared to those of some of his legal medications, which twice nearly killed him. Fortunately, I no longer have to hang out in schoolyards to buy him what he needs to survive comfortably. I live in a country where I, as his caregiver, can grow this wonderful plant under licence from Health Canada.

For now. Health Canada is overhauling the Marijuana Medical Access Program in response to concerns about “exploitation by criminal elements.” During consultations with Montreal medical cannabis dispensaries in August, Health Canada indicated it is seeking to adopt a “more traditional regulatory role” in what it now refers to as a “marketplace.” The plan is to privatize medical cannabis and license commercial producers, who must comply with strict protocols in order to qualify.

Which is positive, prudent and even praiseworthy, but only when contrasted against a decade of poorly planned fecklessness. Health Canada goes to great lengths to mention in its “proposed improvements” that this is “not the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana.” This effort to eschew legalization as a sensible policy option is cynical and sophistic. To make sure this scheme is not some form of de facto legalization, the federal government plans to phase out permits that allow patients to tend their own marijuana gardens or designate a caregiver to do so. (And thanks to the omnibus crime bill, if you are convicted of growing medical cannabis without a licence from Health Canada, you will go directly to jail.)

This does not bode well for patients and does not sit well with Canadians. Revoking and recriminalizing these supply options is a punitive measure, devoid of compassion and decency. During a recent meeting that Health Canada representatives had with the Federation of Medical Regulatory Authorities of Canada, it was pointed out to them that there are three possible courses of action: maintain the status quo, legalize cannabis, or regulate it like any other medical product or therapy. But physicians are loath to be gatekeepers. Regulating cannabis as a medical product is a half-measure doomed to failure so long as government wages an expensive ideological war against non-medical use. Dr. Yves Robert, secretary of the Collège des médecins du Québec, has said on the college’s blog that “the medical profession cannot agree with such a paradoxical policy.”

The California Medical Association has endorsed cannabis legalization on the grounds that it is a “medically sound policy that will only further the ability to properly treat patients.” In Vancouver, the incumbent mayor and four of his predecessors made an endorsement to “stop the violence” and remove this now highly lucrative crop from the clutches of a criminal market. The idea is trending upward. More Canadians support legalization than support our duly elected government. Parents today understand that prohibiting cannabis fails to protect their children and does not make their communities safer.

The Marijuana Medical Access Program was created because sick Canadians require help. The coercion underpinning Health Canada’s “improvements” undermines their potential for success. My father’s plight is but one of millions that expose the folly of the status quo, and the need for a cannabis policy based on evidence and public health. But until the federal government progresses beyond its obstinate denial and legalizes cannabis, the sick will suffer, miscreants will line their pockets, and this awesome medicine will be more easily found in high schools than in hospitals.

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