# Photo: Prairie Plant Systems / Federally approved medical marijuana in
Flin Flon, Man.: Weaker than claimed and possibly contaminated.
# Photo: Philippe Lucas Medical marijuana: Why -- and how -- Ottawa must make it easier to acquire
Tuesday 30 March 2004
Special to the Sun
Having first heard of Health Canada's plan to explore the distribution of
cannabis through pharmacies a few months ago, the media frenzy around this
pilot project announced last week has been a bit of a surprise to me.
Although it is encouraging to finally see pharmacists recognize the safety
and effectiveness of medicinal cannabis, is this plan really in the best
interest of Canada's 700 or so legal users, and the public at large who
would be funding this expensive pilot program?
First let's examine who might benefit from having pot in B.C. pharmacies.
According to the latest Health Canada statistics, there are currently 115
federally licensed users in B.C. -- since about 10 per cent of legal users
have ordered their cannabis from the government, that would add up to a mere
12 potential participants in this program.
Robin O'Brien, the consulting pharmacist organizing this pilot program has
stated that according to Health Canada's own statistics, about seven per
cent of people in B.C. (about 290,000) currently claim to use cannabis for
medical purposes. Unfortunately, the incredible bureaucratic hurdles posed
by the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations coupled with a continued
reluctance of the Canadian Medical Association to support the use of
medicinal cannabis has resulted in just 150 new registrations to the federal
program every year.
By comparison, the non-profit, Vancouver-based B.C. Compassion Club Society,
Canada's oldest and biggest distributor of medicinal cannabis, helps more
than 2,700 critically and chronically ill members gain access to a safe and
affordable supply of cannabis, all at no cost to the taxpayer.
So this expensive, federally funded program won't affect many people, but
isn't it a positive step to finally get cannabis in pharmacies?
The answer to this is both "yes" and "no." It would be an incredible step to
make multiple strains of safe, organic cannabis available in pharmacies to
be distributed by qualified experts. Unfortunately, all of this expertise
currently resides in compassion clubs, and the federal government has not
seen fit to either license, regulate or work with them.
Canada's compassion clubs and societies are safely and effectively
distributing cannabis to more than 7,000 critically and chronically ill
Canadians. They also are doing more legitimate research than Health Canada:
The Vancouver Island Compassion Society, of which I am founder and director,
is conducting hepatitis C research with the University of California at Los
Angeles, nausea and pregnancy research with the University of B.C., and will
soon begin the first high-THC chronic pain and smoked cannabis double-blind
protocol in North America. And they are doing all of this at no cost to the
In addition, compassion clubs distribute to more than half of the 700
legally registered exemptees, compared to the 10 per cent who currently
order their cannabis from the government.
If Health Canada truly cared about the end users of this program, which
sadly are some of Canada's sickest citizens, they should start by licensing
The real problem is that this pilot program's sole offering would be the
single strain of cannabis grown by Prairie Plant Systems at the bottom of a
mineshaft in Flin Flon, Man., one of North America's most environmentally
contaminated areas. Tests conducted by Canadians for Safe Access indicate
that not only is this cannabis weaker than the government claims, but that
it may also be high in heavy metals such as lead and arsenic. At least 10
per cent of the 78 exemptees who have ordered the federal cannabis have
either returned it or refused to pay for it because of its poor quality.
So as a legal user of cannabis, I applaud the enthusiasm of B.C. pharmacists
to address this important issue, but before they undertake an expensive,
taxpayer-funded program to get cannabis into the drugstores, I urge them to:
- Pressure Health Canada to license and regulate the organizations that have
the most relevant experience in this matter -- the compassion clubs -- and
have pharmacists work with them to better understand the safe and effective
cultivation and distribution of cannabis.
- Lobby Health Canada to improve access to the program by making access to
medicinal cannabis possible with a simple physician's or health care
- Make the implementation of this pilot project conditional on Ottawa
supplying pharmacies with multiple strains of high-potency, organically
Philippe Lucas is an experienced cannabis researcher and distributor who
uses cannabis to alleviate the symptoms of hepatitis C. He lives in
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