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Ottawa decides to supply sick Canadians with cheap pot
Mark Kennedy
CanWest News Service

OTTAWA -- The federal government will immediately supply marijuana -- at bargain basement prices -- to sick Canadians who need the pot to alleviate the painful and debilitating symptoms of their diseases.

But the hundreds of chronically ill patients who currently qualify for "medical marijuana" under Health Canada's program had better rush their order. Within weeks, the government may revoke its offer to be the nation's official drug supplier and resume its policy of keeping its stash -- grown at a mine in Flin Flon, Man. -- under lock and key.

The dried marijuana will be sold to Canadians at $5 a gram, enough for about one or two joints, compared to the black market street value prices that police say can range from $10 to $25 a gram.

The drug will be regularly distributed by courier to a patient's doctor in pre-packaged 30-gram bags and be limited to the amount that the physician says is required to treat the condition.

As well, the government will sell marijuana seeds -- $20 for a packet of 30 seeds -- to sick Canadians so they can grow their own.

Federal Health Minister Anne McLellan, who announced the plan Wednesday, made it clear she is lukewarm about the new system.

"Keep in mind that it was never the intention for us to supply the product," she told reporters.

She said the government wants to be convinced first of the medical benefits of marijuana, but its hand was forced by a court ruling earlier this year that essentially required it to become a drug supplier -- at least for now.

Starting this fall, research trials will proceed in Canada on the merits of medical marijuana. In the meantime, she said: "We're not convinced in terms of medicinal benefits . . . In fact, there have been no studies anywhere in the world that have been able to confirm medicinal benefits."

The long-awaited measure was unveiled after years of promises by the government to amend its policies on medical marijuana. But the details of the plan, and the fact that McLellan proceeded with it reluctantly, left critics fuming.

Advocates of more liberalized marijuana policies complained it will do little to ease the suffering of patients and may even make it more difficult for them to obtain pot. NDP MP Libby Davies called McLellan's plan a "shabby" response to the judicial ruling. And Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, who also supports freer access to the drug, said of the plan: "It's bad news. It's temporary. What's the next step? We don't know."

However, Canadian Alliance MP Rob Merrifield, whose party opposes medical marijuana until validated by studies that say it is an effective treatment, said the government has dropped the ball through a "haphazard" approach to the issue. Instead of following the court's dictum, he said, the government should be tabling legislation for parliamentarians to decide the appropriate policy.

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) expressed concerns about a central aspect of the plan in which physicians would be used as "intermediaries" to give the drug to their patients.

CMA president Dr. Dana Hanson said the medical profession believes there should be more scientific proof before medical marijuana is used as a treatment. He said doctors are concerned they will be harassed by patients -- possibly even face violence or suffer break-ins -- once they know or suspect the physician has some pot in his office.

Furthermore, Hanson said he's not so sure that the drug distribution policy, once begun, will remain temporary.

"Remember income taxes. That was temporary too."

The government stressed Wednesday that its new plan is only an "interim policy."

Indeed, the government would not have become a drug supplier for the sick if its hand were not forced by a court decision last January. In that ruling, Ontario Superior Court Justice Sidney Lederman blasted the government for inadequate regulations it had devised on how to distribute medical marijuana.

The regulations allow certain patients with chronic or terminal illnesses to apply to Health Canada for permission to use marijuana. Their applications must be signed by a doctor. So far, 1,145 people have applied and 582 have qualified. They are allowed to grow marijuana on their own or have another approved grower do it for them.

When then-health minister Allan Rock launched the program two years ago, he made it clear that sick people unable to get the drug via either of those two routes could buy it from the government, which hired a company to grow the pot at the Flin Flon mine.

But when McLellan replaced him in January 2002, she said the Flin Flon crop would only be supplied to people in clinical research trials to determine if it was true that pot helps sick people.

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