Canada: Web: Take 2 Joints and Call Me in the Morning
Pubdate: Fri, 2 Apr 2004
Source: DrugSense Weekly
Section: Feature Article
Author: Philippe Lucas
Note: Philippe Lucas is an experienced cannabis researcher and distributor
who uses cannabis to alleviate the symptoms of hepatitis C.
TAKE 2 JOINTS AND CALL ME IN THE MORNING
Having first heard of Health Canada's proposal to explore the distribution of cannabis through pharmacies a few months ago, the media frenzy around this pilot-project has been a bit of a surprise to me. After continued complaints from the Canadian Medical Association ( CMA ) regarding the short-lived plan to have physicians act as suppliers of the Health Canada grown cannabis, the government had little choice but to turn to the pharmacies.
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 ( from Feb. 2004 ), there are currently 115 federally licensed users in B.C. - since about 10% of legal users have ordered their cannabis from the government, that would add up to a mere 12 potential participants in this program.
Dr. Robin O'Brien, the consulting pharmacist organizing this pilot program has stated that according to Health Canada's own statistics, about 7%, 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 ( MMAR ) coupled with a continued reluctance by the CMA to support the use of medicinal cannabis has resulted in an anaemic 150 new registrations to the federal program every year. By comparison, the non-profit, Vancouver-based British Columbia Compassion Club Society, Canada's oldest and biggest distributor of medicinal cannabis, currently helps over 2700 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 pilot program won't really 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 and distributed by experienced and qualified experts. Unfortunately, all of this expertise currently resides in compassion clubs, and the federal government has not seen fit to either license or regulate them, nor have they worked to establish a more cooperative relationship with these important social/welfare organizations.
Canada's compassion clubs and societies are currently safely and effectively distributing cannabis to over 7000 critically and chronically ill Canadians, they are doing more legitimate research than Health Canada ( the Vancouver Island Compassion Society, of which I am founder and Director, is currently conducting Hep-C research with UCLA-SF, nausea and pregnancy research with UBC, 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 taxpayer. In addition, compassion clubs currently distribute to over half of the 700 legally registered exemptees, compared to the 10% 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 compassion societies.
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, Manitoba, one of North America's most environmentally contaminated areas ( http://safeaccess.ca/research/flinflon.htm ). Tests conducted by Canadians for Safe Access indicate that not only is this cannabis weaker than the government claims ( around 5% THC vs. the govts. claim of 10%THC ), but that it may also be high in heavy metals like lead and arsenic ( unsurprising considering its source of origin ). With the knowledge that at least 10% of the 78 exemptees who have ordered the federal cannabis so far have either returned it or refused to pay for it due to its remarkably poor quality, we should be wary of any attempts by the government to make it more readily available until issues or safety, quality and selection have been properly addressed.
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 1 ) pressure Health Canada to license and regulate the organizations who have the most relevant experience in this matter - the compassion clubs - and to have pharmacists work with them in order to better understand the safe and effective cultivation and distribution of cannabis; 2 ) lobby Health Canada to improve access to the program by making access to medicinal cannabis possible with a simple physician's or health care practitioner's recommendation; and 3 ) to make the implementation of this pilot project conditional on the federal government supplying pharmacies with multiple strains of high-potency, organically-grown cannabis.
Finally, if the pharmacists hope to get the support of the public and the med-cannabis community for this initiative, they must make it clear that they are here to supplement and learn from the good work of Canada's compassion clubs, and not to replace them. If B.C.'s pharmacists truly wish to help ease the suffering of Canada's critically and chronically ill, then they have to do the one thing that Health Canada has refused to do so far: listen to the very real concerns of the end users of this product, the sick and dying Canadians who so depend on this medicine to improve their lives and alleviate their suffering.
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