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Making Canada a Leader in Medical Marijuana

By Hempology | May 11, 2006

National Post

Stephen Harper has decided to turn marijuana law reform into a mere pipe-dream for 3 million pot-smoking Canadians. This is a tragic mistake: Only in the world of science fiction can a plant become public enemy number one. But the oracle has now spoken, and Canadians will probably have to endure another decade of a misguided drug strategy that converts cannabis consumers into common criminals.

May 3, 2006

Fortunately, however, Harper’s regressive approach to cannabis prohibition should have no impact on the increasing number of Canadians who rely upon marijuana for medical purposes. In 2000, the Ontario Court of Appeal declared that seriously ill Canadians have a constitutional right to choose marijuana as medicine. To discharge this constitutional obligation, Health Canada has been compelled to manage and maintain a program that exempts legitimate medical use from the criminal law.

Contrary to the views of ill-informed detractors, medical marijuana use is not simply a reflection of the obvious fact that intoxicating substances can make sick people feel temporarily better. The cannabinoids present in marijuana plants not only lead to giggles and a deep appreciation of Pink Floyd; these unique chemical compounds can control and curb nausea, neuropathic pain, spasticity and inflammation. As an appetite stimulant, marijuana can combat the ravages of the wasting syndrome that plagues many patients undergoing chemotherapy and HIV/AIDS antiretroviral treatment.

To date, the medical applications of cannabis have related to symptom control and not curative properties. But last year there was much excitement when Spanish and Israeli scientists both discovered that a synthetic cannabinoid can actually shrink cancerous tumours.

The problem with marijuana as medicine is the paucity of clinical research. We know pot works and we know it has a high margin of safety, but we don’t really know how it works. In the past century, governments funded endless research in the attempt to prove that marijuana is sufficiently harmful to warrant criminal intervention, but these same governments turned a blind eye to any research into medical benefits. Thousands of years of medical use of marijuana was disregarded, or even hidden, in the futile effort to convince people that marijuana was a soul-destroying narcotic.

In the process of re-writing history, governments exposed millions of patients to needless suffering.

Governments simply assumed that Big Pharma would eventually develop synthetic products that would have greater therapeutic efficacy than marijuana. But with the recall of highly-touted painkillers such as Vioxx and Celebrex, one can now see it is a mistake to rely upon laboratory creations and ignore the benefits of a naturally occurring plant that has been used for medicine since 3000 B.C.

We need to understand marijuana’s mechanism of action in order to develop medical products that are effective and safe. Many patients will not tolerate smoking joints as a medical treatment. New delivery systems must be developed.

For this reason, I became involved in founding Canada’s first publicly traded company dedicated to research and development with marijuana — Cannasat Therapeutics. Despite my general suspicion of big business, I even became a shareholder.

My interest in corporate pot has little to do with the widely-shared belief that cannabinoid medicines are destined to become the lucrative, blockbuster drugs of the 21st century. Rather, I know it will take the resources of big business to unravel the mysteries of marijuana’s valuable medical applications in the same way that many of our hospitals needed to be built on a foundation of corporate donations.

Canada is the ideal jurisdiction for advancing cannabinoid research, as we are the only country in the world where patients have a constitutional right to use marijuana as medicine, and where the government has a constitutional obligation to produce this medicine or to facilitate reasonable access through other channels.

Some of the grassroots constituency of pot smokers, whose interests I have represented over the years, have accused me of being a sell-out for introducing the business community to a plant adored and worshipped by the counterculture. Of course, I still remain committed to liberating the plant from the clutches of criminal law control — but that is an entirely different issue from the alleviation of pain and suffering. As Moses Znaimer, Chairman of Cannasat Therapeutics, recently noted: “This is not about fun — it is about function.”

It takes little creativity and initiative to have fun with pot, but it will take years of clinical testing and millions of dollars to develop cannabinoid products that help seriously ill medical patients. It’s not hard to act like Cheech and Chong, but it takes lots of effort to become the next Banting and Best.

Finally, the world has woken up to the therapeutic potential of cannabis. Research conducted by Cannasat, other pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions will transform the nature of our pharmacopoeia. Move over Gravol, and make way for ganja.

Alan Young teaches law at Osgoode Hall Law School and criminology at the University of Toronto. His work contributed to the establishment of Canada’s first medical marijuana program.

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