Medical marijuana: Why -- and how -- Ottawa must make it easier to acquire and distribute

August 18, 2005

Philippe Lucas, The Vancouver Sun

Having first heard of Health Canada's plan to explore the distribution of cannabis through pharmacies a few months ago, the media frenzy around this pilot project announced last week has been a bit of a surprise to me. Although it is encouraging to finally see pharmacists recognize the safety and effectiveness of medicinal cannabis, is this plan really in the best interest of Canada's 700 or so legal users, and the public at large who would be funding this expensive pilot program?

First let's examine who might benefit from having pot in B.C. pharmacies. According to the latest Health Canada statistics, there are currently 115 federally licensed users in B.C. -- since about 10 per cent of legal users have ordered their cannabis from the government, that would add up to a mere 12 potential participants in this program.

Robin O'Brien, the consulting pharmacist organizing this pilot program has stated that according to Health Canada's own statistics, about seven per cent of people in B.C. (about 290,000) currently claim to use cannabis for medical purposes. Unfortunately, the incredible bureaucratic hurdles posed by the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations coupled with a continued reluctance of the Canadian Medical Association to support the use of medicinal cannabis has resulted in just 150 new registrations to the federal program every year.

By comparison, the non-profit, Vancouver-based B.C. Compassion Club Society, Canada's oldest and biggest distributor of medicinal cannabis, helps more than 2,700 critically and chronically ill members gain access to a safe and affordable supply of cannabis, all at no cost to the taxpayer.

So this expensive, federally funded program won't affect many people, but isn't it a positive step to finally get cannabis in pharmacies?

The answer to this is both "yes" and "no." It would be an incredible step to make multiple strains of safe, organic cannabis available in pharmacies to be distributed by qualified experts. Unfortunately, all of this expertise currently resides in compassion clubs, and the federal government has not seen fit to either license, regulate or work with them.

Canada's compassion clubs and societies are safely and effectively distributing cannabis to more than 7,000 critically and chronically ill Canadians. They also are doing more legitimate research than Health Canada: The Vancouver Island Compassion Society, of which I am founder and director, is conducting hepatitis C research with the University of California at Los Angeles, nausea and pregnancy research with the University of B.C., and will soon begin the first high-THC chronic pain and smoked cannabis double-blind protocol in North America. And they are doing all of this at no cost to the taxpayer.

In addition, compassion clubs distribute to more than half of the 700 legally registered exemptees, compared to the 10 per cent who currently order their cannabis from the government.

If Health Canada truly cared about the end users of this program, which sadly are some of Canada's sickest citizens, they should start by licensing compassion societies.

The real problem is that this pilot program's sole offering would be the single strain of cannabis grown by Prairie Plant Systems at the bottom of a mineshaft in Flin Flon, Man., one of North America's most environmentally contaminated areas. Tests conducted by Canadians for Safe Access indicate that not only is this cannabis weaker than the government claims, but that it may also be high in heavy metals such as lead and arsenic. At least 10 per cent of the 78 exemptees who have ordered the federal cannabis have either returned it or refused to pay for it because of its poor quality.

So as a legal user of cannabis, I applaud the enthusiasm of B.C. pharmacists to address this important issue, but before they undertake an expensive, taxpayer-funded program to get cannabis into the drugstores, I urge them to:

* Pressure Health Canada to license and regulate the organizations that have the most relevant experience in this matter -- the compassion clubs -- and have pharmacists work with them to better understand the safe and effective cultivation and distribution of cannabis.

* Lobby Health Canada to improve access to the program by making access to medicinal cannabis possible with a simple physician's or health care practitioner's recommendation.

* Make the implementation of this pilot project conditional on Ottawa supplying pharmacies with multiple strains of high-potency, organically grown cannabis.

Philippe Lucas is an experienced cannabis researcher and distributor who uses cannabis to alleviate the symptoms of hepatitis C. He lives in Victoria.

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