Canada's pot laws benefit patients

April 12, 2004

Jacqueline Deelstra, The Daily Trojan, USC

The Canadian government has announced a plan to make marijuana available in pharmacies after observing the benefits it can have for people with certain illnesses, making Canada the second country to allow the direct sale of the drug for medicinal purposes. The new Canadian pilot project would allow government grown marijuana to be sold in participating pharmacies in British Columbia. The program is modeled off the one introduced in the Netherlands a year ago.

Participating pharmacies would be able to sell marijuana similar to how the morning-after pill is sold in the United States: approved patients would be able to obtain the drug directly from a pharmacist without a prescription.

Patients get approval through an application to the government which must be accompanied by a declaration from a medical professional. Those who will receive approval include individuals with terminal illnesses or with specific symptoms associated with serious diseases that marijuana is seen to have benefits for.

Before the change in policy takes effect later this year, marijuana for medical use will only be available through certain suppliers approved by the Canadian government.

Marijuana has been seen as a treatment for nausea and vomiting associated with many types of chemotherapy used to treat cancer. It also has been used to treat glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and severe forms of arthritis.

In the United States, policy on medicinal marijuana has followed the opposite trend, becoming tighter. In May 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that under the Federal Controlled Substances Act, laws prohibiting marijuana use include no exception for sick people.

In October 2003, the Bush administration's advisement to change the law to punish doctors for recommending or even discussing the use of medicinal marijuana with patients was rejected by the Supreme Court.

Mitch Earleywine, associate professor of psychology who teaches a general education course called 'Drugs, Behavior and Society,' said the stark difference in drug policies between Canada and the United States comes from the context in which the laws came about.

The U.S. policy is connected to when prohibition ended in the 1930s. In order to keep the substance enforcement business alive, the board needed to find something new for the American public to fear, Earleywine said.

Canada doesn't have that kind of history, he said

Difference in attitudes toward marijuana in the countries can also be attributed to the fact that Canada does not have a socially conservative core such as the Bible Belt in the United States, Earleywine said.

Canada also has more of a European influence and a more liberal social culture, he said.

'There is a strong moral expectation that you are not supposed to have any pleasure unless you earn it in America,' he said. 'That comes from our Protestant work ethic.'

Despite the fact that federal law prohibits the distribution or use of marijuana under any circumstances, nine states have laws permitting marijuana use for those who have a doctor recommendation or prescription.

Those states include Arizona, Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Earleywine said last year, with the United States' strict, no-tolerance policy on marijuana, there were approximately 750,000 cannabis-related arrests. 'That is a whole lot of money wasted and law-enforcement time used that could be better spent,' he said.

Some nations that have not liberalized their laws as much as the Netherlands or Canada have chosen to in order to make the drug a low priority for law enforcement to free up resources for more serious crimes.

England has decriminalized marijuana to the extent that it takes a very low priority in law enforcement.

In Australia, laws have also been relaxed with no increase in use, Earleywine said.

He described the marijuana-enforcement policy to be similar to giving out parking tickets. Police in Australia write a citation for those they find in possession, take their marijuana and in turn make a lot of money off the citations, Earleywine said.

Some criticisms in the use of marijuana for medical reasons come from the side effects. Common side effects include psychological effects such as short-term memory loss and problems in paying attention.

Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, a main chemical in marijuana is also seen to cause drops in heart rate and blood pressure when used regularly. Cannabis also can have negative effects on the immune system, leaving users more susceptible to illness than nonusers.

But cannabis has remarkably fewer side effects than the other prescription drugs used to treat conditions the drug is seen to have benefits for, Earleywine said.

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