Health Canada to sell pot through drugstores
March 21, 2004
CP, Toronto StarOTTAWA (CP) — Health Canada plans to make government-certified marijuana available in pharmacies, a move that could rapidly boost the number of registered medical users. Officials are organizing a pilot project in British Columbia, modelled on a year-old program in the Netherlands, that would allow medical users to buy marijuana at their local drugstore. Currently, there are 78 medical users in Canada permitted to buy Health Canada marijuana, which is grown in Flin Flon, Man. The 30-gram bags of dried buds, sold for $150 each, now are sent by courier directly to patients or to their doctors. But the department is changing the regulations to allow participating pharmacies to stock marijuana for sale to approved patients without a doctor's prescription, similar to regulations governing so-called morning-after pills, emergency contraceptives that can be obtained directly from a pharmacist without the need for a doctor's signature. A notice of the change is expected to be made public this spring, allowing for drugstore distribution later in the year. 'We're just at the preliminary stages right now,' said Robin O'Brien, a consulting pharmacist who is organizing the pilot project for Health Canada. 'We're not quite sure how it's going to fit.' Canada would become the second country in the world after the Netherlands to allow the direct sale of medical marijuana in pharmacies. It would also mark the first time community drugstores in Canada could sell a controlled substance that is not an approved drug. 'The difficulty is that marijuana does not have a notice of compliance, so it doesn't have a drug identification number,' O'Brien said from Vancouver. 'There's no pharmaceutical company that's going to come forward to take it through the regulatory process because they can't get a patent on it, so it's kind of a limbo drug.' The pilot project is slated for British Columbia because the province's college of pharmacists issued a groundbreaking statement last fall supporting the distribution of medical marijuana in pharmacies, unlike most health-care organizations which have opposed easier access. 'Certainly the climate in British Columbia appears to be more welcoming and supportive,' O'Brien said. 'This is a relatively safe and non-toxic product.' Although the number of current approved users is small, O'Brien notes that internal surveys for Health Canada have suggested up to seven per cent of the British Columbia population — or about 290,000 people — use marijuana for medical purposes, albeit illegally. Easier availability of certified marijuana might encourage more medical users to register with the government, rapidly boosting the number taking advantage of legal dope, says O'Brien. 'We're not quite sure how big it could get,' she said. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is the method of ingestion. Pharmacists have long opposed tobacco products and do not want patients smoking marijuana. Solutions could include developing a liquid form — a tincture — or capsules for oral ingestion, or the use of vapourizers that release the essential ingredient THC without burning. However, some approved users say the Health Canada dope is of such poor quality that wider distribution and novel forms will not necessarily attract more users. 'It is of incredibly poor quality,' said Philippe Lucas of Victoria, who is authorized to receive government marijuana. 'A very raunchy, poor quality smoke.' Lucas and other users have said the marijuana, which Health Canada says contains about 10 per cent THC, is actually much weaker. Jari Dvorak, one of the first to receive Health Canada marijuana last fall, says he stopped using the product three months ago because the department has not lived up to its promises to improve the quality. 'I have not seen any evidence of change yet,' Dvorak said from Toronto. A department spokeswoman says tests are under way to improve the marijuana after numerous complaints from users. 'We are taking the concerns of users seriously,' said Aggie Adamczyk. Lucas, who's with the lobby group Canadians for Safe Access, says the move to place government-certified marijuana in pharmacies is a prelude to Health Canada's longer-term goal of controlling all supplies of medical marijuana. Currently, registered users have the option of growing their own or having someone grow it for them — a privilege they could lose as government dope becomes more widely available. Health Canada, which has long opposed the use of marijuana for medical purposes, has been forced by a series of court rulings to allow approved patients access to the drug. The department says clinical trials are necessary to demonstrate the efficacy of marijuana. Some patients report that marijuana alleviates the pain and nausea associated with AIDS and other diseases.