Unpaid pot bills chronic problem

May 31, 2007

Brennan Clarke, Saanich News (Canada)

Any other terminally ill patient in Canada would have all his prescriptions covered by the Canadian health care system.

Jason Wilcox owes so much money for his medication, Health Canada has cut off his supply and threatened to send a collection agency after him.

Wilcox, a James Bay resident, is one of about 149 federally approved medical marijuana patients who have either failed to pay or refused to pay for their government grown pot, leaving the government with more than $140,000 in unpaid pot bills.

Since receiving his government exemption to cultivate and/or possess marijuana three years ago, Wilcox has racked up more than $6,000 for pot he purchased from the government’s legal grow-op in Flin Flon, Manitoba. When a 300-gram shipment arrived at his subsidized housing complex March 23, the invoice advised him “this is your last shipment.”

“I’ve been cut off my legal supply. They’ve told me ‘you get nothing else until we get payment in full,’” Wilcox said. “But this is Canada. We’re supposed to have our meds covered.”

Wilcox declined to identify the ailment that will one day claim his life, except to say he was diagnosed 13 years ago and now uses steroids to keep from wasting away.

“I’m 216 pounds, all muscle from the steroids. I was down to 155 pounds three years ago.”

The health-care system will pay for all the other drugs he needs to manage his condition, including synthetic forms of THC (tetrahdryocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana) and all kinds of pain medication.

Wilcox believes synthetic drugs are harmful to his system and says marijuana works better for issues such as pain and nausea.

“They’re all covered, except I don’t want to take them because I don’t want to wreck my internal organs, he said.

Health Canada spokesperson Renee Bergeron said marijuana is not approved as a therapeutic drug in Canada and therefore any decisions regarding medical coverage would be up to provincial officials and individual insurers.

Government policy made it clear from the beginning that medical marijuana users would have to pay for government-grown bud, Bergeron said, adding that patients who don’t pay their bills risk being cut off. In some case, they may contacted by a collection agency, she said.

“Seizing supply is seen as a last resort and collecting overdue accounts is a necessary part of the program,” she said. “There’s no provision that allows the patient to be exempt from payment.”

Wilcox isn’t alone. In fact, two other residents of his subsidized housing complex in James Bay – Ann Genovy and Linda Rushton – have also been cut off.

Genovy, who suffers from the same ailment as Wilcox, owes about $1,500. Rushton, who owes more than $3,000, laughed when asked if she has the capacity to pay the bill.

“I can’t pay that – it’s way out of my line,” she said. “It’s a stress that you don’t need in your life.”

Rushton, who suffers from fibromyalgia, disintegrating arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome, said marijuana controls her pain, keeps her appetite up and allows her to sleep at night.

Recent court rulings have ordered the federal government to provide marijuana to chronically ill patients, making Health Canada a reluctant supplier of the drug.

Philippe Lucas, founder of the Vancouver Island Compassion Society, a medical marijuana provider that operates in a legal grey area, said the fact that legal users are being cut off their pot supply and chased by collection agencies shows the medical marijuana program is in complete disarray.

“We’ve never sent a collection agency after anybody and I think that marks a real a difference between the government program and the non-profit, community-based distribution,” he said.

Health Canada has authorized more than 1,700 people to possess and use dried marijuana as a medication. More than 1,000 of those are licensed to grow their own.

Hundreds of others order marijuana through Health Canada’s official supplier, Prairie Plant Systems, and have the goods delivered by courier.

bclarke@vicnews.com



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