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Despite Health Canada’s Sketchy Rules, Our Medical Marijuana Program Is Improving

Health Canada’s MMPR program has been criticized for only offering patients dried weed buds, making it difficult for those who are unable to smoke due to pre-existing health concerns. Now, a new Health Canada anti-weed ad illuminates their disconnect...
August 19, 2014, 6:20pm

Inside Medreleaf, a licensed producer of medical marijuana in Canada. Photo via the author.

I’ve spent a sizable chunk of 2014 documenting the ups and downs of Canada’s medical marijuana program. In our new video series, Canadian Cannabis, you can check out the inside of two different legal marijuana factories, visit a compassion club that sells oils and extracts (products that are prohibited under Canada’s medical program), which has since been raided by Vancouver Police, and learn about patients who have been alienated by Health Canada’s program—the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR)—for a variety of reasons.

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One of the stories we tell in the third episode is of the Pogson family, whose daughter Kate suffers from Dravet syndrome, a “catastrophic” form of epilepsy. Luckily for the Pogsons, cannabis that is very high in CBDs (rather than THC, the psychoactive ingredient in weed) dramatically reduces her seizures. Kate is a toddler, so smoking high-CBD marijuana is quite clearly an absurd proposition. That’s why the Pogsons turn the high-CBD weed, a strain known as Charlotte’s Web, into an oil.

But here’s where it gets tricky.

Health Canada’s MMPR only offers patients dried weed buds. Meaning there are no cannabis juices, oils, extracts, hashes, or any other byproduct available for sale. This tells patients who are unable to smoke, because of previous health conditions, that legal weed isn’t for them. And, the process of turning legally-obtained dried buds into an oil or extract at home has been, up until recently, legally ambiguous.

That changed on August 15th, in the BC Court of Appeal, when Owen Smith, a dude who was arrested for baking weed edibles at a compassion club in Vancouver, won a constitutional challenge against Health Canada, which has made it definitively legal for medical marijuana patients to make extracts with their dried  “marihuana” (as Health Canada so annoyingly calls it).

In the court’s decision, which was voted on 2-1, the message sent to Health Canada is quite clear: “Where the state interferes with an individual’s capacity to make decisions concerning the management of those health problems by threat of criminal sanction, the state is depriving that individual of the power to make fundamental personal choices”

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Sadly, Health Canada has had no issue in the past with threatening sick people with law enforcement intervention, for not abiding by their absurdly restrictive cannabis policies. Earlier this year, they tried to force all patients who were registered under their old program, the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR)—which allowed people to grow their own plants—to

destroy the weed they had cultivated. This unsurprisingly resulted in a lawsuit—and the patients won.

"Canadian Cannabis" host, Damian Abraham, at the Pogson family's dinner table. Photo via the author.

So, Health Canada has now lost two court cases, which have chipped away at the absurdities of the MMPR, but meanwhile they continue to act like political buffoons regarding medical weed in the media. The latest controversy surrounds an ad campaign Health Canada is running to purportedly warn children about the dangers of cannabis—instead of, you know, making cannabis medication more accessible to epileptic children who need it to survive.

The Liberals, namely Justin Trudeau, have taken this ad campaign personally, as he’s referred to it as a thinly-veiled attack on his platform, which aims to sensibly legalize marijuana once and for all. Rona Ambrose, our Conservative Minister of Health (who has absolutely zero medical background), refutes the allegation that her anti-weed campaign is somehow political: “Telling kids not to smoke marijuana is not politics, it is good public health policy and it's based on science."

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The irony of Health Canada preventing kids like Kate Pogson from getting reliable access to cannabis oil is, I’m sure, lost on Ms. Ambrose.

And that’s largely why it’s irrelevant to discuss whether or not the Conservatives are using a good ol’ fashioned anti-drug campaign to fuck with the Liberals. They are already blatantly attacking Trudeau on his weed policy, outside of Health Canada campaigns, and if the current polls are any indication, the Conservatives won’t have a leg to stand on in 2015 in the first place.

Rona Ambrose may not like marijuana, but her department, Health Canada, has authorized a broken medical marijuana program anyhow. They have allowed corporations to get into the weed-growing game, and they have tried to strip the privilege for patients to grow their own plants in an aggressive, authoritarian fashion. Now, by stepping out and actively advertising against the drug, at a time when a federal election that partially hinges on the marijuana legalization conversation is around the corner, they look confused and desperate.

Two-thirds of the country want marijuana laws softened. Doctors are apprehensive about medical marijuana, mainly because it’s hard to determine dosages without more research, but they at least recognize that Health Canada’s latest ad campaign is nonsense, stating they wouldn’t endorse it because it has become a “political football on Canada's marijuana policy.”

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While this annoying political squabbling continues, obviously higher bodies, like the BC Court of Appeal, recognize that many of our restrictions around medical marijuana are unconstitutional. And so even with a person like Rona Ambrose in charge of Health Canada (she also opposed the Kyoto accord, while she had her ‘environmental hat’ on as the Minister of Environment), marijuana laws will inevitably be loosened and made more rational, with or without her support.

It’s especially problematic, given that in the same speech about Health Canada’s newest anti-weed ad campaign, Ms. Ambrose declared drugs like Oxycontin would be given “stronger warning labels” to try and curb addiction. With 410,000 Canadians admitting to having abused pharmaceutical drugs in a recent survey, you would think maybe that would warrant an ad campaign too?

Regardless of the inane controls that Health Canada has tried to place on medical marijuana, sick people who know that cannabis makes them feel better are going to continue using cannabis, because good weed is luckily everywhere in Canada. So hopefully articles like this won’t have to be written for much longer, because with weed legalization spreading throughout America, it’s only a matter of time before the marijuana industry really takes off here.

And once Canada does have a legalized, recreational, corporate weed industry, we’ll probably reminisce over the days when it was contraband, maybe because it was more fun to buy from a dealer than order from a government-approved grow-op. But at least we won’t be locking up 70,000 people a year for holding some kush.

@patrickmcguire