Maclean's /October 18 page 85
Ottawa approves applications to use marijuana
By Andrew Clark
Comedian Howard Dover came up with the idea for a benefit performance to be called Oh, Cannabis after his cousin, diagnosed with HIV, began using marijuana to ease his pain. Held last week at the Yuk Yuk's club in Toronto, the stand-up comedy show raised money for two local groups fighting to win the right to use marijuana as a medicine.
In comedy, timing is everything, and Dover's was impeccable. On the same day, Health Minister Allan Rock announced he was allowing 14 Canadians to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. To the show's comedians, a group not known for their anti-drug stance, that represented victory. One performer, Craig Campbell, lit a six-inch joint and inhaled deeply. "This," joked the 30-year-old "is my tribute to the cause."
Picture with caption: Campbell - supporting the campaign to legalize cannabis for medical use
Rock's announcement clearly established the federal government's support for the use of marijuana to ease symptoms associated with some diseases. It followed Rock's decision in June to exempt the first two patients - both suffering from Aids - from prosecution under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Health Canada officials did not identify the 14 new patients or their ailments. But marijuana's advocates say it is effective for a wide range of conditions including AIDS, multiple sclerosis, cancer chemotherapy side-effects, epilepsy and some eating disorders.
Under a procedure established last May, applicants for exemption must provide a detailed doctor's report along with other information about their condition. The special dispensation allows them to grow marijuana for their own use, but not to buy it or to receive it from a caregiver. The department is considering 80 informal inquiries and 20 more official applications. But many activists in the fight to legalize medicinal marijuana believe Health Canada's provisions do not go far enough.
Warren S. Hitzig, director of the Toronto Compassion Centre, one of the Yuk Yuk's benefactors, says about 3,000 chronically ill Canadians use organizations like his to obtain marijuana. "It's a start," he said of the 16 exemptions "but what about the rest of the people suffering around the country?" Health Canada counters that it still lacks reliable information about the medicinal value of marijuana. "Right now, all we have is anecdotal evidence," says spokesman Derek Kent.
To address that problem, Rock said, the first Canadian clinical research into the medical benefits of marijuana will begin in Toronto early next year. Trials will be held in other centres over a period of five years, at a possible cost of $7.5 million. The Toronto program will involve roughly 250 subjects taking either research-grade cannabis, dronabinol - a drug containing a synthetic version of the psychoactive agent tetrahydrocannibinol - or a placebo. Health Canada has not settled on a source for pure, standardized marijuana. But it will not be cannabis seized by the RCMP. International conventions ban the use of illegal substances for legal means, and street drugs may contain fungi, moulds and other contaminants that make them inconsistent in chemical composition and potency.
The exemption process, already slow and laborious, may become unmanageable if thousands submit applications. Health Canada insists it is not opening 'the door to legalizing the drug. "This is not about decriminalization," maintains Kent. "This is about providing medical marijuana for those who are sick."
But even as Rock announced the new exemptions, the government's marijuana policy was under attack on another front. In the Ontario Court of Appeal, lawyer Alan Young, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, appeared for two Toronto men caught up in marijuana cases. The federal government is appealing an Ontario judge's decision to stay possession charges against Terry Parker, 42, who has used marijuana to control his epileptic seizures. Christopher Clay, 28, a legal activist, is appealing convictions for possession and trafficking. Ottawa, Young argued, does not have the constitutional right to deprive Canadians of marijuana because, he said, it is no more lethally toxic than sugar. Young said he believes that, so far, only the terminally Ill have been granted exemption "When the government gives dispensation to those with debilitating illnesses," he said, "then we will see a real change because then you will have tens of thousands of users."
Meanwhile, the comedians are already planning their next benefit. "Fourteen," Dover mused on stage. "It's not much, but it's a start." And with a gesture to the marijuana-friendly audience seated at Yuk Yuk's dinner cables, the comedian added: "And I'm guessing that food sales tonight were way up."