Although the Supreme Court of Canada legalized the medical use of marijuana in 1999, activists and lawyers say too many obstacles remain for sick and dying patients in need.
Currently, people who have a Health Canada medical exemption can grow their own supply, designate a third-party grower or place an order with the government-contracted supplier, Prairie Plant Systems.
William Palmer, 44, is HIV positive and received a medical exemption in 1999. He grows his own supply, but would prefer more convenient access to the drug he needs to curb the side effects of his HIV medication.
“The government should put marijuana in pharmacies, in hospitals Canada-wide. That way I can travel. Right now I can’t travel because I’m growing plants. They need to be watered every day,” Palmer said. “I should never have to run out of medicine.”
Tracey Curley is a project co-ordinator at the Toronto Compassion Centre. Her centre provides medical marijuana to over 2,000 members, including both Health Canada licence holders and patients who haven’t been able to obtain the required exemption.
“Medical marijuana is only legal for people that have a Health Canada license. Unfortunately, if you’ve ever dealt with a government bureaucracy, it can be very frustrating. So imagine trying to get your medical marijuana licence,” Curley said. “Our sick people are put through a lot to try to get access, having to fill out an application to prove that you’re dying of AIDS every year.”
Compassion centres dot large Canadian cities and act as a buyer’s collective to match growers with patients. The centres are technically illegal under Canadian law. Despite the legal uncertainty, Curley says the centres are indispensable to their clients.
“There are over 2,000 medical marijuana users, who have growers who grow for us compassionately so that we can actually make sure that is safe and clean,” Curley said. “People who are sick should not be getting their medicine off the street and that’s what a lot of licence holders are doing.”
Alan Young teaches law at Osgoode Hall and has played an active role advocating for patients charged with marijuana offences. He pointed to a recent federal court decision against Health Canada.
“The provision that we struck out was that the designated producer could only grow for one patient, so in theory I could get 20 patients to all designate me and I could have a small or large-scale grow operation,” Young said. “We seemed to achieve a progressive step forward in terms of facilitating access, but the federal government is appealing the decision.”
If the federal government wins the appeal in September against multiple growers, Health Canada would move to control the entire supply of medicinal marijuana.
Toronto lawyer Ron Marzel represents sick and dying patients who use cannabis to alleviate their symptoms. He says the government has done a poor job of supplying medical cannabis and should consider other options.
“Less than 20 per cent of all cannabis patients access their supply from the government. The government doesn’t recognize that different strains treat different conditions,” Marzel said. “The government doesn’t have a good track record of supplying cannabis but it’s determined to have a monopoly.”
Young says that a reliable supply of medical marijuana will continue to elude patients as long as the federal government and police continue to vigorously prosecute marijuana grow operations.
“I have people waiting in the shadows who have 10, 20, 30 patients that want this person to grow for them,” Young said. “I want them to be able to get a warehouse that’s growing 500 to 1000 plants, that is high-tech, that is clean so that I can take the police and the press in and say here’s what it looks like when it’s done right. That’s my goal.”