Medical treatment going up in smoke
Smoking seven grams of marijuana every day would incapacitate most people, but a Penticton man says it’s the only thing that helps him cope with a painful stomach ailment.
And he says he’s now built up such a tolerance that weed no longer gets him high. But he is paranoid, however, about planned changes to Canada’s medical marijuana program that could force him to become a criminal.
Red, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his safety, is one of just a few dozen people in Penticton who are licensed by Health Canada to grow or possess marijuana for medical purposes.
A home-based artist in his late-30s, Red has been using marijuana since he was 18, but has only been licensed since 2011 to help him fight the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
“If I don’t have (marijuana), first off all, I just don’t have an appetite,” he explained.
“When I do eat, certain foods work better than others, but generally I get cramps if I don’t have it. It feels like digesting marbles.”
While marijuana is available through Health Canada, Red prefers to grow his own, which saves him money and results in higher-quality medicine.
“Health Canada’s product does not work,” he said. “I would not even classify it as marijuana.”
By the numbers
As of May 2012, Red was one of 17 people in Penticton who was licensed by Health Canada to grow and possess marijuana; 19 others were licensed to possess only, according to data obtained by the Western News through an access to information request.
Penticton has the fewest licensed medical marijuana users per capita among Okanagan cities. In Vernon, 68 people were authorized to grow and possess, according to the data, while 155 people in Kelowna had the same privilege.
To get such a licence, a patient must have a serious or debilitating illness for which conventional treatment has proven ineffective. The patient and doctor — and sometimes another specialist — then fill out reams of paperwork that Health Canada reviews before deciding whether to admit the person to the program.
Red guessed the disparity in the numbers between Penticton and other Okanagan cities likely has something to do with differences in communities’ attitudes towards marijuana use and doctors’ comfort prescribing the drug. In his case, he had to go to Vancouver Island to find a doctor willing to recommend him for the program.
Those who are only allowed to possess can buy directly from Health Canada or seek out other less legal sources, like compassion clubs. Those authorized to grow can tend a set number of plants to match their prescription needs. A third type of licence allows for designated growers, who produce marijuana for a licensed user.
That’s all about to change.
Open to abuse
Until the end of February, Health Canada is accepting comments on proposed new regulations that will see it get out of the business of supplying pot and forbid licensed users from growing their own dope. Instead, they’ll have to buy from licensed growers, who will need to abide by strict standards and be open to inspections and audits. The new dispensaries will operate on a mail-order basis only.
Health Canada spokesperson Stephane Shank said via email that the federal Conservative government is “very concerned” the system in place now is “open to abuse and exploitation by criminal elements,” and that grow-ops are a fire hazard that present a risk to public safety.
The changes, Shank added, reflect concerns raised by police and fire departments, doctors and local governments during consultations in 2011, and are set to take effect in March 2014.
Doctors and patients have different concerns.
Most worrisome for Red is what it will cost to buy his medication. According to Health Canada, the price of medical marijuana is expected to rise to $7.60 per gram by 2014 under the new regime, so a seven-gram daily dose would cost $53.20.
“I already can’t afford my medicine if I have to buy it,” he said. “That’s why I grow it myself.”
As he sees it, the new regulation will simply make criminals out of licensed users, who might decide to risk jail time by growing their own or purchasing on the black market to save money.
“It will just shove it completely underground again.”
Being the gatekeepers
Doctors are just as worried about the new rules, which will only exacerbate their concerns about being the sole gatekeeper to medical marijuana.
Right now, physicians recommend patients for the program, but Health Canada approves and administers the licences. Under the new guidelines, a doctor would write out a simple prescription that a patient would send directly to a dispensary.
“We think it’s a step in the wrong direction,” said Dr. Shelley Ross, president of the B.C. Medical Association. “I think a better way is to make sure Health Canada still stays involved and does some regulation around it and doesn’t just leave it with the physicians.”
Ross said most doctors are uncomfortable recommending marijuana for patients because they don’t know enough about it to prescribe correctly, nor are they confident they can always tell the difference between people who need pot for legitimate medicinal purposes from those who just want to use it recreationally.
“We’re very sympathetic to patients that are having symptoms that aren’t helped by the usual methods, and some of them feel the marijuana does help them,” Ross said. “But on the other hand, we’re very unhappy about being the gatekeepers of an illegal substance that hasn’t got enough scientific basis as to whether it truly is safe to prescribe for people.”
The American way
Red said he’ll likely continue producing his own supply if the new regulations come into force as written, but he plans to grow fewer than six plants. Keeping six or more now attracts a mandatory minimum six-month jail sentence under changes to drug laws brought in last year by the Conservative government.
He thinks Canada has taken a step backward on its policy around marijuana, while south of the border, the states of Washington and Colorado have moved forward by beginning to decriminalize pot.
“The most ridiculous part is watching the United States of America lead the way,” Red said. “They’re legalizing it and we’re doing the opposite.”