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Injunction puts pot on hold

Critics of medical marijuana plan call decision small victory
Chris Bolster

Licensed medical marijuana users breathed a collective sigh of relief after a federal court handed down a last-minute reprieve which allows them to continue to grow their own pot at home.

Critics of the Conservative government’s plans to turn medical pot into a regulated billion-dollar industry have called the ruling a small victory.

A coalition of patients is suing the federal government over concerns about changes to Health Canada’s rules which govern how medical marijuana is produced and distributed. That trial is expected to happen sometime within the next nine to 12 months.

Federal court judge Michael Manson granted the injunction Friday, March 21, allowing those who have a personal production licence to grow medical marijuana to continue pending the outcome of a trial. “I find that the nature of the irreparable harm that the applicants will suffer under the [updated regulations] constitutes a clear case, which outweighs the public interest in wholly maintaining the enacted regulations,” Manson said in a written statement.

BC lawyer John Conroy took the patients’ coalition’s concerns to court seeking an interim injunction. He argued that the new program violates patients’ constitutionally-guaranteed rights by forcing them to choose between liberty, which they could lose if they continue to grow their own, and their health, which could deteriorate if they are not able to afford their regular doses under the new system.

The government’s lawyer argued that there is no constitutionally-guaranteed right to cheap medicine and that there is no scientific evidence which shows some strains of the plant are better suited for treating particular illnesses or patients.

Powell River residents Doug Webb and Fern Fournier are two of many licensed medical marijuana users in the area. They are not part of the coalition.

The men, both HIV positive, use the plant to help counter the discomfort of taking more than 20 different pills daily to manage their health.

“Without the marijuana, I have sharp stabbing gas pains that double me over,” said Webb. Since starting to use medical pot, he said he has been able to manage the discomfort and the bouts of severe diarrhea.

Webb, 58, retired from his career in information systems at Consumer and Corporate Affairs Canada in 1992 after his doctor told him he had less than 10 T cells left and had between three to six months to live. T cells aid the body’s immunity and a healthy body carries millions.

“Here I am all these years later,” he said. Webb chalks that fact up to the decision he made to retire early.

“I’ve been retired now longer than I worked,” he said. He watched as friends who also had been diagnosed returned to work and died within two years.

“I think it’s the stress,” he added. “You can’t have a career and fight this disease. You have to choose.”

The men use a vaporizer and also smoke marijuana, but Webb said his doctor prefers him to bake with it to reduce the impact on his lungs.

“When you take it as medication you’re not getting stoned anymore,” he said, explaining that his body is used to having it in his system. “It’s not dope-heads getting stoned all the time, it’s people using marijuana so they can go out and be active.”

He does not think police are going to start arresting sick people for having marijuana, despite the Conservative government’s plans otherwise.

The federal government announced its plan to repeal the Marihuana Medical Access Program last year citing public safety concerns of toxic mould and fire risk from grow-ops. The government also believes that the program is susceptible to criminal abuse by those who resell their products on the black market.

Starting April 1 the system was to be replaced with the more tightly controlled Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, under which medical marijuana patients will be required to get their doses from one of a handful of licensed producers. The prices, set by the growers, will range from $4 to $12 per gram for the dried plant.

Twelve companies have been granted licenses from Health Canada under the new program, many of them in the past few months. Concerns have been raised that the growers may not be able to meet the demand and access to different strains of medical pot will be restricted.

Health Canada warned patients earlier this month with a blunt media release that growers would have to destroy all of their plants and provide the department with notification that they had done so, or their names would be handed over to the police.

Several municipal police forces including Vancouver Police Department have stated that they will not change their strategy in dealing with compassion clubs and medical marijuana dispensaries.

Webb hopes that eventually marijuana will be treated the same as wine or beer where people are allowed to produce for their own consumption, but not sell it.

He added that the government could authorize growers, and recreational users who want to purchase pot would then pay the federal and provincial excise taxes. “Things have to be illegal to keep prices up,” he said. “That would work perfectly and it would keep the prices low enough to keep organized crime out of it.”

Both men, who are retired and on a fixed income, volunteer in the community which helps them manage their stress. They tried to grow their own marijuana but after not succeeding enlisted the help of a licensed grower. Despite the injunction, they intend to continue receiving marijuana the same way they always have.

Fournier has seen Webb’s health improve over the past five years since he started using marijuana to treat stomach discomfort and other ailments.

Friday’s ruling does not affect the new licensing system.

With the injunction, those with authorization to possess medical marijuana will be allowed to continue to do so—though they will be restricted to holding up to 150 grams, the amount specified under Health Canada’s new rules to govern medical marijuana to go into effect April 1.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that patients with a doctor’s approval must have reasonable access to a legal supply of marijuana. Health Canada, however, still makes it clear that it does not endorse the use of medical marijuana and that the department has yet to see conclusive data indicating that the plant’s benefits outweigh its potential harm.

The number of Canadians currently authorized to possess and even grow has ballooned to more than 37,000 people this year, which the federal government said represents about 3.5 million plants.

Health Canada has stated that it wants to maintain its current approach. While being required to provide reasonable access to marijuana for medical purposes it will also continue to treat dried marijuana like other narcotic drugs used for medical purposes.

~ with files from Canadian Press