Be compassionate

January 13, 2008

Colby Cosh, OpEd, National Post (Canada)

Once again a Canadian court has spoken up and said it's time for the federal government to stop choking off supplies of medical marijuana to the more than 2,000 users it licenses. And once again, the government is expected to seek every conceivable obstacle, use every possible loophole and exhaust every avenue of appeal that might help delay the adoption of a logical, humane medical marijuana policy.

Until last week, licensed users had three options for obtaining the drug lawfully: buy the much-criticized weed from the federally contracted factory in Flin Flon, Man., master the art of cultivating it themselves or designate a personal grower. But no grower was allowed to provide pot to more than one patient. This rule was intentionally designed to prevent the creation of California-style "compassion clubs" or backyard patient collectives.

In other words, the law recognized the usefulness of medical marijuana as a natural means of reducing pain and nausea in sufferers of cancer, multiple sclerosis or AIDS -- but if those sufferers were not content to buy from the government, they were denied the most cost-effective method of obtaining it themselves. Compassion clubs offer benefit beyond the mere operation of economies of scale: they allow patients to regulate the content and quality of their own medication, and they naturally evolve other social features, allowing the severely ill to make new friends, share health advice, and comfort one another. After years of experience in other countries, members have access to a global body of expertise in meeting the myriad of logistics and security problems involved in growing, storing, travelling with and consuming medical marijuana.

It is no wonder that judges continue to horsewhip elected officials and civil servants for standing in the way of these organizations, many of which have already been operating on Canadian soil but outside its law. In a decision issued last Thursday, federal court deputy judge Barry Strayer ruled that Health Canada's insistence on a one-to-one ratio between growers and patients is unreasonable. "In my view," Strayer wrote, "it is not tenable for the government, consistently with the right established in other courts for qualified medical users to have reasonable access to marijuana, to force them either to buy from the government contractor, grow their own or be limited to the unnecessarily restrictive system of designated producers."

Who could disagree without disclosing contempt for the most fundamental human liberties? Conventional reasons for opposing the legalization of marijuana vary in nuance. Some are plainly ridiculous: if pot were really a "gateway drug," then there must be an awful lot of closet junkies amongst the 10 million-plus Canadians who have tried it at least once. Some stem from a misunderstanding of scientific evidence: note, for instance, how frantically armchair drug warriors go spelunking in the medical literature for links between marijuana and psychosis, abusing both common sense and the idea of statistical correlation. (The rate of tobacco use among schizophrenics is in the neighbourhood of 70% to 90%. Does this mean that cigarettes cause mental illness? On the contrary -- the best educated guess is that schizophrenics who smoke are, subconsciously or otherwise, self-medicating.) And some have at least a partial grounding in reality: there are certainly good reasons to inhibit the usage and prestige of marijuana among adolescents, who face enough challenges in maintaining their motivation and attention in school without getting high.

What the good and bad arguments against marijuana have in common is that they have little or nothing to do with the situation of the seriously or terminally ill. A cancer patient who can't hold down a meal because of chemotherapy, and who finds that marijuana restores appetite better than any prescription drug, will be justly infuriated upon hearing that his wellbeing must be sacrificed in order to "send the right message" to 12-year-olds. And knowing that he will be eligible to consume morphine by the truckload if he gets sicker, he can only regard talk of "gateway drugs" as a sadistic irony.

Medical marijuana users are perfectly happy -- indeed, desperately eager -- to have legal compassion clubs and cultivation cooperatives regulated up the proverbial wazoo by Health Canada. They will go along with almost any reasonable scheme the government is able to devise to protect the interests of public order. But one suspects that the real problem is an optical one. Both Liberal and Conservative governments have succeeded in whipping up wrath against marijuana "grow-ops," blaming them for violence and electricity thefts as if those things were not already crimes unto themselves.

But a compassion club is nothing but a grow-op that complies with the law, pays its bills, lives openly in the community and causes no harm to anybody. And once you concede that such a thing can exist, and others demonstrate it, the whole semantic game of drug prohibition becomes harder for the government to play.

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