Health Canada’s new attack on medical marijuana is no toke

by Gregory Beatty


In November, Health Canada publicly outed 40,000 members of the medical marijuana community by sending them envelopes marked Medical Marihuana Access Regulations through regular mail. Typically, Health Canada communicated with patients via courier with unmarked envelopes.

Health Canada attributed the gaffe — which put patients (and licensed growers of medical cannabis) at risk of home invasion, and also stigmatized them (in some circles anyway) as “pot-smokers” — to administrative error.

The medical marijuana community didn’t buy it, though. A class action suit for breach of privacy was launched, and the general consensus is Health Canada was trying to intimidate them in advance of the MMAR being replaced by the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations.

That’s due to happen on April 1.

Apparently all this wasn’t enough for Health Canada, which has been belligerent to medical marijuana under Stephen Harper’s famously anti-pot Conservative government, however. On March 14 Health Canada unleashed another salvo when it issued a bulletin saying MMAP licensees had until April 30 to provide written notice they had destroyed their existing supply of cannabis (or cannabis plants).

Fail to comply, the bulletin warned, and the department would notify “law enforcement.”

“It’s pretty scary because my daughter passed away a couple of years ago and my wife and I have custody of the children,” says Robin Hove, an MMAP licensee who uses cannabis to control PTSD. “My family’s been through enough already. How is this going to affect them? I know it’s already affected me. I’m not sleeping, and I’m checking every car on my block I don’t recognize to see if [it’s the police].

“They snuck this out on a Friday, 17 days before the deadline,” Hove adds. “They have not sent us letters. We’ve had no notification of this rule. The only reason we know is because a couple of dudes from Ontario and Quebec go to the Health Canada website every day to look for updates. Otherwise, we’d have no idea this is going down.”

The new rules aren’t 100 per cent terrible — one plus with the MMPR is that the government is making it easier to use cannabis. Before, you had to jump through a bunch of hoops. Now, you just need a prescription from a doctor or nurse practitioner.

On the supply side, though, the government is doing away with the right of licensees to grow their own medicine (or have a small-scale grower do it for them). Instead, they’ll be required to buy from newly-licensed, large-scale commercial growers.

And that, say supporters and anyone with a basic grasp of the issue, sucks.

First off, Health Canada’s track record at supplying cannabis is dismal. Patients are worried about the quality of the marijuana and whether enough strains will be produced to treat their particular ailments.

“I haven’t even applied for a new license yet I’m so scared of what’s going to happen,” says Hove. “As of April 1 I have no medication. I’ve refused prescription drugs because when I was on Paxil, Zoloft and all that stuff, all it did is make me angry and sick, and it triggered PTSD effects like night terrors.”

Second, it hurts sick people financially.

“They’re forcing people in the system now to destroy their medication at the end of the month, after they’ve paid for it, and without compensation. And then you’re expected to buy brand new stuff. How many disabled people have money they can throw away like that?”

Under the MMAP, most growers put the health of patients ahead of profits. Some of them are applying to get licenses under the MMRP. And as long as they meet Health Canada criteria related to safe and secure operation, they should be able to get them.

In Saskatchewan, the Green Canvas Co-op recently announced a $500,000 financing deal with Vancouver-based Enertopia to get a 60,000 sq. ft. facility up and running.

Already, Enertopia has a 10,000 sq. ft facility in B.C. With the number of medical cannabis users expected to mushroom to 300,000 in the next five years, Enertopia President Robert McAllister envisions a robust future for his company.

“My view is it will be like the beer industry,” he said at the Feb. 28 announcement. “You’ll have the biggies that pump out their beer and have X percentage of the market. Then you’ll have the micro breweries with dedicated clients.”

That’s not a bad analogy, except we’re not talking beer here (which you can legally brew in your basement). We’re talking medicine that tens of thousands of Canadians rely on to relieve their suffering and restore their health.

The stakes are so high that an application has been made in Federal Court for an injunction to prevent the MMRP from taking effect. The case was heard on March 18, and Vancouver lawyer John Conroy expected the judge to render a decision by April 1.

Health Canada justifies the MMRP changes by citing reports from police and other agencies that the MMAP was being abused. Complaints range from improperly installed grow-ops being fire and mold hazards, to growers over-producing for the black market, to inconvenience and possible danger for neighbours.

Conroy doesn’t think much of the evidence presented.

“When you analyze what few statistics they have, most being anecdotal stories, there’s nothing to support the toxic mold concern. On cross examination, they couldn’t provide any statistics on the number of fires in medical grows. The public safety hazard, again, I think there were one or two ‘grow rips’ that involved medical grows.”

Previous court cases like R vs. Parker (Ontario Court of Appeal, 2000) have established certain principles tied to medical cannabis. Because many patients are on disability, financial hardship is a definite concern, as is quality control, and ensuring a reliable supply to safeguard patient well-being.

The MMAP had been working just fine, Conroy argues, and the government’s heavy-handed action violates patients’ rights under s. 7 of the Charter.

“On April 1, all these folks are going to be placed in a position of having to choose between their liberty and health. They’re either going to be faced with being charged and have their liberty and security of person impacted, or they’re going to have to go without effective medicine which impacts their health.

“That’s the irreparable harm that we will argue is going to occur if the court doesn’t [grant an injunction].”