Access to marijuana a right for PWAs

June 28, 2006

Jefferson Mendoza, Capital Xtra (Canada)

A new report released Jun 14 by the Canadian AIDS Society (CAS) identifies barriers that hinder people living with HIV/AIDS from access to marijuana for medicinal use. The 18-month project report is entitled Cannabis As Therapy For People Living With HIV/AIDS: Our Right, Our Choice. The report is divided in two parts: the first part, Our Right, outlines the political barriers that revolve around the medical use of marijuana. Barriers include lack of awareness of the existing government program for access to medical marijuana, the mistrust of the government, and the medical establishment's unwillingness to support the benefits of marijuana for people with HIV/AIDS.

The other part, Our Choice, proposes allowing authorized marijuana users to expand their options when choosing the type of marijuana they want to be treated with.

Today, those needing the weed can legally get it only from very limited sources: either buying cannabis grown by the government, buying seeds from the government and growing them on their own, or designating a person who can grown plants only for them.

Only 1.7 percent of authorized users choose the government's product because it only provides one strain of cannabis. The government has also expressed its intention to phase out those with licenses to produce -- putting users in a position where they may have to break the law for the sake of their health.

"Denying a seriously ill person access to healthcare services is not only unethical," the report notes, "it also violates the very essence of our universal healthcare system."

The report notes 58,000 Canadians live with HIV/AIDS. Between 14 percent and 37 percent of them use marijuana to help alleviate symptoms of appetite loss, wasting, nausea and vomiting, pain, anxiety, depression and stress. They either smoke the weed or, if they need a longer lasting effect, eat it.

The drug is useful for stimulating appetite and helping people keep down their food. It has minimal negative side effects on the user's health and is not physically addictive.

A groundbreaking study by Dr Tashkin at UCLA in 2005 found cannabis does not cause cancer of the lungs, upper airwaves or oesophagus. Another 2005 California study found patients with HIV/AIDS with moderate to severe nausea were more likely to take their medications on a regular basis than if they used cannabis.

But acquiring cannabis for medical purposes is difficult in Canada. Only 1399 persons are authorized to possess cannabis. Only 26 percent of those who were consulted for the CAS report have valid authorization. And a complex set of Health Canada regulations make it difficult to get authorization.

Doctors are reluctant to sign their patients' request to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. The Canadian Medical Protective Association -- the insurer for the medical profession -- in 2001 advised its doctors not to complete the government's program's documents unless they have "detailed knowledge" about cannabis.

Brent Lewandoski, a member of the national steering committee for the project and one of the four panelists at the press conference launching the report, says people have the right to choose the therapy best suited for them.

Speaking softly behind his glasses with an AIDS pin on his left navy blazer, Lewandoski outlined the difficulties faced by many of his friends with AIDS.

"It's very important that people be aware that people who use medicinal cannabis are there to improve their quality of life and to help them become better and productive people in society," says Lewandoski.

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