One of the witnesses heard during Ontario Superior Court hearings on rules governing the use of medical marijuana, a 55-year-old sufferer of multiple sclerosis, testified that when she asked her doctor to approve her application to use marijuana to relieve her chronic pain, the doctor put her hands over her ears and went, “La, la, la, la. I can’t hear you.”
This pretty well encapsulates the federal government’s response to chronic-pain sufferers and medical professionals who are clamouring for a clearer policy on medical marijuana.
The government proposes to remove Health Canada as the ultimate arbiter in approving or rejecting applications to possess marijuana for medical use, and instead leave it up to doctors to decide whether their patients should be licensed to do so. While this might appear to be a liberalization, it is widely being rejected by doctors, who rightly assert that a responsibility that should pertain to Health Canada is being off-loaded on them without appropriate research having been conducted on the medicinal properties of marijuana.
Marijuana was legalized for medical use a decade ago, but shortly after the Conservative government came to power in 2006 it abruptly terminated an accompanying medical-marijuana research program set up to clinically determine its safety and proper use. Such research would have allowed doctors to properly determine who should be prescribed marijuana and, as it were, weed out those who simply want to use it for recreational purposes.
As the president of the Canadian Medical Association has said, the proposed policy, in the absence of necessary research, would leave doctors with the responsibility of prescribing and monitoring an inadequately tested drug, thereby leaving themselves open to doing harm to patients and subject to legal action. As a result, many doctors are refusing to grant patients in chronic pain permission to legally use marijuana, even though the patients have determined through experimentation on their own that it alleviates their suffering.
At the same time, many people with a legitimate medical reason to use marijuana are resorting to black-market sources and are thus left liable to arrest and prosecution for possession of an illegal substance.
The government’s rationalization for its position is that clinical research on marijuana would best be undertaken by the private sector. But such research has been disdained by pharmaceutical companies because there is no money in it for them, since anyone can grow marijuana. The real reason, one suspects, is ideological, that the government is playing to the anti-drug constituency in the same spirit that it tried to shut down Vancouver’s InSite safe injection site for intravenous-drug addicts.
That misguided initiative was recently repelled by a Supreme Court of Canada ruling, after the federal government had appealed lower-court verdicts that were in InSite’s favour. Similarly, an Ontario Superior Court judge ruled this spring that the federal medical-marijuana program is unconstitutional because in its present form it denies adequate access to marijuana for people whose chronic pain it alleviates.
The federal government is appealing that ruling as well. In doing so it risks having existing criminal laws against marijuana possession and cultivation thrown out into the bargain – something the Ontario court ruling would have done had it not been appealed.
To forestall that, the government should immediately revive and fund the marijuana-research program in the interest of coming up with some solid scientific answers on the drug’s ability to alleviate pain. Doctors should not have to be the gatekeepers for the dispensation of an inadequately tested drug whose non-medical use is illegal.
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