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Big Pharma's pot pill plans could push expertise of med pot growers underground.

The pot thickens

Big Pharma budding into medical pot plan with pill for the ill

BY Matt Mernagh

The med grass community is fuming. Not over the Libs' lousy pot legislation, but over Health Canada's sneaky new regs requiring them to get their official pot at pharmacies. At first glance, doling out Prairie Plant Systems' stockpiled "dirtweed" through drug stores seems like a wonderful idea. But many users are worried that the plan is intended to grease the way for Big Pharma to monopolize the med-grass supply, thus ending licensed users' right to grow their own safe, cheap, effective stash, and threatening compassion clubs with police crackdowns.

There certainly is a lot of room for paranoia. The appearance of new players on the horizon like the UK's GW Pharmaceuticals, which is hoping to get the nod from Health Canada for its synthetic cannabis spray, Sativex has only fed fears that the Libs are bent on a private-enterprise solution.

Then there's Canuck company CannaSat, backed by Moses Znaimer, which is angling to get permission for clinical trials of Prairie Plant Systems' "mine swag.'' What is freaking out medgrass folks big time is that the lead consultant for CannaSat is none other than pot's highest-profile courtroom champion, lawyer Alan Young.

Intrigue all around. Not least of which is Health Canada's stealth in ramming through the changes mandating drugstore purchase to the Medical Marijuana Access Regulations (MMAR). Instead of allowing for parliamentary scrutiny, the department published the new regs in the parliamentary journal Canada Gazette. This makes these amendments to the Narcotics Control Act legit after a 30-day public comment period no debate in the House required.

Health Canada envisions a program in which cardholders "present their prescription to a pharmacist to obtain dried marihuana." Fewer than 100 people now receive their "swag in a bag" from Prairie Plant Systems, and the sub-par product is delivered directly to their homes.

By contrast, some 8,000 Canadians use compassion clubs to acquire medicinal-grade marijuana to treat terminal or chronic illnesses. Much of this is illegal, though many clubs demand a doctor's prescription to score.

One million Canadians claim their marijuana use is medicinal. Many people seem to be using the drug-warrior slogan "Just say no" when it comes to pharmaceuticals. "Pot, not pills!" is their mantra.

Unlike taking large helpings of opiates, toking the reefer to treat my chronic debilitating oseteoarthritis allows me to go from disabled to able.

Toronto Compassion Club member, MS sufferer and MMAR cardholder Alison Myrden, a long-time activist, echoes these sentiments. The herb, when it's the right strain, gets her mobile, chatty and helps her keep her dinner down. The idea that the feds may be remodelling the system rattles her completely. "It's making me freak," she says, confiding that the added stress is causing her to vomit more than usual. "I'm panicked. I'm so worried that they're trying to phase out growing our own, and that they'll go after compassion clubs."

Currently, the feds have given 572 users permission to produce their own cannabis or designate someone to do it for them. Says Philippe Lucas of Canadians for Safe Access, "I want to make it clear that these people didn't join the program to become cannabis farmers. They want the right to have multiple strains, multiple methods of ingestion, and growing methods that are safe. Health Canada is not talking about doing something beneficial for the end user."

HC, for its part, vehemently denies that it'll ask for the return of the personal production licences. Still, HC spokesperson Cathryn Saunders does admit that the forthcoming amendments "could change the marijuana base."

It's Young's opinion that the community's fear of losing the right to grow is a very valid one, though he sees no move afoot to get rid of compassion clubs.

Young, meanwhile, finds himself at the centre of a raging controversy because of his new corporate connection to CannaSat. The lack of information regarding CannaSat's intentions a press conference keeps being put off has sparked an incredible amount of speculation that a select few are going to corner the market. Some have accused Young and a group of MMAR cardholders who are supposedly investing in CannaSat of "selling out" or profiting off illnesses.

Young answers the criticisms by telling me, "CannaSat welcomes the decentralized system. We encourage and support what is currently available in production licences and designated producers, and I personally support compassion clubs.

"But Health Canada," he adds, "has already announced that its long-term goal is to get rid of all distribution except through pharmacies and Prairie Plant Systems. That's its policy."

CannaSat is talking with Health Canada about conducting clinical trials. "Because so little is known about cannabinoids, we feel it would be futile to start extracting synthetic compounds and derivatives. We value the plant.'' The goal of CannaSat is to do research on various strains to identify which can target certain symptoms.

By law, the marijuana for clinical trials has to come from Prairie Plant Systems, which currently provides only one strain.

While Canadians for Safe Access claims Prairie Plant Systems grass is unsafe, Young says he would not be using it if it were. "I'm convinced that the product is safe. Whether it's effective I'll work on that. It turns out the elevated levels of heavy metals (reported by Canadians for Safe Access earlier this year in the government-issued grass) are no different than those found in grocery store products."

The cannabis from Prairie Plant Systems has been improving since Canadians for Safe Access began its own independent tests without the consent of Health Canada. That's good news, but Lucas insists the weed is still unsafe and unusable. While its THC count has risen to 12 per cent, Lucas says the grind is too fine and the twigs too big.

GW Pharmaceutical grows its own marijuana in a controlled environment for its cannabinoid medicine, Sativex. Though the company can identify the exact plant that goes into each individual puffer, Sativex is not an herbal product.

"There's no way for a precise amount of cannabis to be baked into, say, two mouthfuls of cake," says GW spokesperson Mark Rogerson. "It isn't a pharmaceutical. Anyone can bake a cake, but there's a huge problem with dosage."

The company has sidestepped the whole medical marijuana debate by seeking to have Sativex approved like any other pharma product.

Its clinical trials have been submitted to Health Canada, and the company hopes to be issued a Drug Identification Number and a Notice of Compliance within the next year and a half. This would allow doctors to prescribe Sativex without going through the lengthy MMAR process and allow pharmacists to fill the script without requiring any of the proposed changes to the Narcotics Control Act.

In the future world of DIN numbers and dried marijuana distributed by pharmacies, will both agencies renew their efforts to shut us grassroots pioneers down?

Says Young, "Marijuana's a very complex plant. A great deal of research needs to be done. There is a role for the underground to play. Its members have a lot of experience."

news@nowtoronto.com

NOW | NOV 11 - 17, 2004 | VOL. 24 NO. 11



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