This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
The past few weeks have been messy for Health Canada and their clumsy medical marijuana program. The government agency that purports to look after the health of Canadian citizens announced they would be rolling out a plan that would force the roughly 40,000 medical marijuana patients (who are registered in the government’s system) to destroy the dank buds they had been legally growing at home, and patronize a host of new government sanctioned grow-ops; lest they have their information turned over to the RCMP.
That plan was quashed before it could even get off the ground, after John Conroy, a BC lawyer, successfully argued that this new program would limit sick people’s access to medicine so drastically that it’s unconstitutional. A temporary injunction has been granted to Conroy, which means that for now, medical marijuana patients can keep growing at home, while the government contests the decision.
Interestingly enough, while the mandate that would have required medical marijuana patients to destroy their medicine today has been temporarily halted, the entirety of Health Canada’s new program hasn’t been put on ice. One key change that’s made it through, is that new patients who wish to take cannabis (aka smoke that weed) to deal with their nausea, anxiety, chronic pain, or other ailments, can now receive prescriptions directly from their doctor, rather than go through a bureaucratic application process that would require each new patient to earn Health Canada’s approval.
In an official, and snappily titled Health Canada statement published Monday (Government of Canada Announces New Steps to Help the Medical Community with Marijuana for Medical Purposes) the agency coldly addressed the court’s overruling of their allegedly unconstitutional plan to snatch medicine away from sick people as such: “Health Canada does not endorse the use of marijuana, but the courts have required reasonable access to a legal source of marijuana for medical purposes.”
The statement also addresses the lack of official testing that marijuana has gone through to become a verifiably useful medicine, as Rona Ambrose, Canada’s Minister of Health herself says:
“I continue to hear concerns from health professional organizations that dried marijuana is not an approved drug or medicine in Canada. They want clearer guidance on safety and effectiveness and want authorizations to be monitored. That is why I asked Health Canada to consult with provincial and territorial regulatory bodies, companies licensed to produce marijuana and other professional organizations to enhance information-sharing on how doctors and nurse practitioners are authorizing the use of marijuana."
To be clear, this is the same agency that cannot even recall dangerous drugs that get sold to Canadians by Big Pharma. Eleven percent of doctors in Canada already give “off-label” prescriptions, meaning they prescribe drugs in scenarios that are untested, which has led to catastrophic results. Plus, Health Canada whistleblowers have accused the agency of pushing through medicine that didn’t have enough data behind them to be verifiably safe.
Then there’s marijuana, which is at least anecdotally recognized the world-over as being a relatively safe drug with strong medicinal benefits. Obviously no one would want our doctors and government to act on medicinal policy simply based on Joe and Sally’s account of weed being super fucking rad, but clearly the government isn’t all that reluctant when it’s authorizing giant factories to open up on Canadian soil and start pumping out weed.
And, if it had gone the way Health Canada had originally planned, these new factories would not only have an exclusive market to the 40,000 patients in the medical marijuana program, but by allowing doctors to directly prescribe weed to new patients, their market would grow exponentially. In fact, Health Canada has estimated by 2024 there will be 450,000 Canadians using medicinal marijuana, which they estimate will create a billion dollar industry.
I reached out to the Canadian Medical Association Monday morning to get a doctor’s perspective on the power balance shifting from Health Canada to doctors themselves, when it comes to prescribing patients that kush, but they were busy, and bounced me over to the Federation of Medical Regulatory Authorities in Canada (FMRAC), whose homepage links to this statement: “MEDICAL MARIHUANA: WHAT THE MEDICAL REGULATORY AUTHORITIES HAVE TO SAY.”
Apparently FMRAC’s position hasn’t changed since 2004, when they stated: “The Federation of Medical Regulatory Authorities of Canada strongly believes that the practice of medicine should be evidence-based, and that physicians should not be asked to prescribe or dispense substances or treatments for which there is little or no evidence of clinical efficacy or safety.” Adding, "For those stated reasons, we strongly oppose the proposed Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations.”
The doctors of this country have an understandable, professional reluctance given that Health Canada has still not authorized marijuana as an approved drug or medicine; yet Health Canada has still managed to kick up a ton of dirt by upsetting patients and threatening them with law enforcement intervention for non-compliance with their possibly unconstitutional program, which of course landed them in court.
Part of the problem doctors are bound to have with medical marijuana is the huge amount of cannabis variants available to weed users: dried buds in strains that vary from sleepy-weed, to hungry-weed, to nausea-evaporating weed. Then there’s the oils, extracts, and edibles (which, so far, are not being manufactured by any Health Canada-authorized grow op). Or how about medication like Charlotte’s Web? A proven cannabis based remedy for child epilepsy, that is gaining legal acceptance in the US, but is still unavailable in Canada.
While doctors seem (at least officially and on the record) very wary of prescribing cannabis to Canadians in any sort of widespread fashion, the fact is that weed is now being grown legally in Canada on large commercial scale, and doctors can directly prescribe it. This alone will likely result in a few weed-friendly doctors operating in a practice near you sometime soon.
Whether or not the regulatory boards are happy about this is somewhat irrelevant, because Health Canada’s plan has passed in a way that should be cause for celebration for medical marijuana patients: it’s easier to get a prescription, you can grow it at home if you want to, or you can patronize one of many new legalized, private grow-ops.
Obviously these new private grows can’t be happy about their bottom-line, now that patients can still legally grow their own happy plants, as opposed to being forced to buy from this new industry; and Health Canada certainly isn’t stoked that their somewhat monopolistic plan has been bodyslammed in court.
But despite it being somewhat unintentional, Canada now has better access to medical marijuana than ever before — just in time for 4/20.