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Medicinal-marijuana harvest on hold

By Hempology | April 22, 2002

From the GLOBE AND MAIL, April 22nd, 2002

By CAROLYN ABRAHAM, Medical Reporter

Hundreds of sick Canadians awaiting the government’s first shipment
of medical marijuana had better not hold their breath: Ottawa
bureaucrats now say that they have no idea when their weed harvest
will be ready for distribution and that only a select group will be
eligible to receive it.

Facing acute concern from doctors about prescribing pot as medicine
and a cabinet shuffle that has landed new Health Minister Anne McLellan
with a heavy agenda, the government’s much-touted meidicnal-marijuana
program seems to have slipped into slow gear.

Special regulations permit patients with conditions as varied as AIDS
and back pain to use the illegal drug to ttreat their various symptoms.

Details of pot plan still not finalized

Officials with former health minister Allan Rock said last December
that marijuana growing in a northern Manitoba mine would soon be
in those patients’ hands.

Four months later, more than 250 kilograms of the federally sanctioned
buds have been harvested, but still have not budged. The cannabis is
sitting in a secure cold storage grotto, 360 metres underground, its
entrances video monitored constantly by RCMP.

“They are going to have to sit around and smoke it themselves or watch it
rot, because they don’t seem to want to give it to anyone,” said Victoria
Lawyer Robert Moore-Smith, who represents three clients facing charges
related to selling marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Mr. Moore-Smith, along with others familiar with the situation, say
Canada’s medicinal pot rogram, the first of it’s kind in the world,
is causing confusion.

Federal officials are still working out crucial details about how to run
the program, which they announced more than a year ago. Among the questions
is whether medicinal marijuana should be subject to the same premarket
screening and regulations as any other pharmaceutical drug before
it reaches patients.

“I think it’s goin gto take more time than anyone expected,” Cindy Cripps-Prawak,
director of the federal government’s Office of Cannabis Medical Access,
acknowledged. “This is not an approved therapeutic product.”

Ms. Cripps-Prawak would not even hazard a guess as to when the weed
would be deemed ready for shipment.

The Health Minister turned down requests for an interview on the program.
Her spokeswoman Farah Mohamed said Ms. McLellan is still committed to it,
though she added, “there is no arbitrary time clock” dictating when the
marijuana will be delivered.

So far, a total of 798 people have been approved to possess marijuana
as medicine. But only 106 of them have permission either to grow the
drug themselves or to have someone else grow it for them. This leaves
more than three quarters of the patients in a Catch-22: They are
legally entitled to possess a drug that is illegal to buy.

So while cannabis accumulates in the underground cavern, patients
place anxious calls to Health Canada, politicians and the Saskatoon-based
company hired to grow the government’s marijuana.

NDP health critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis said she has received a “barrage of
complaints” from patients worried that buying marijuana for medical
purposes “puts them at risk of being charged under the current law.

“It’s a mess,” she said. “But is this government going to continue
to make flowey announcements and then not follow through?”

Doctors, meanwhile, feel the onus has been left for them to judge
the medical value of marijuana for their patients without research
to back it up.

Both the Canadian Medical Association and the Canabian Medical Protective
Association have told physicians not to sign patients requests to be
federally approved to possess cannabis.

“The objective is not to prevent them from having access to something that
may relieve their symptoms, but to protect them against an unproven
treatment,” CMA president Henry Haddad said.

Only patients who participate in clinical trials or agere to be monitored
for research purposes will receive the government-grown marijuana,
Ms. Cripps-Prawak said.

But since patients are not usually charged to test experimental drugs,
the government is also reconsidering whether it can recoup the
$5.7-million it is spending over five years to grow its marijuana supply.

Ted Smith, founder of the Victoria-based Cannabis Buyers’ Clubs of Canada,
which sells pot as medicine to 950 members, said few people are applying for
the government program anymore.

“The only way things will happen here is by constant, passive, civil
disobediance,” said Mr. Smith, who faces six marijuana-related charges.

“Most people are giving up on Health Canada. They figure, why fill out
all this paperwork? Doctors have been told not to sign it for them and
then there’s nowhere to get it, so what’s the point?”

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