Giving a graceless okay to medical marijuana
Thursday, July 10, 2003 - Page A16
Like a recalcitrant teenager ordered to do her homework or lose her TV privileges, Health Minister Anne McLellan has waited until the last possible moment to make medical marijuana available to Canadians, as directed by the courts. She and her department have dragged their feet in a number of ways over the past few years, trying to avoid this decision -- arguing that the medical benefits of marijuana are inconclusive and that the product delivered by a contractor didn't meet quality tests (if only all dealers were so conscientious). Now, they can delay no longer.
Yesterday marked the deadline set by Ontario Superior Court Justice Sidney Lederman in January, when he ruled that Ottawa's regulations on access to medical marijuana were unconstitutional. In effect, he said the government had placed terminal cancer patients, people with AIDS, epileptics and others in a Catch-22: It was legal to use marijuana for medical purposes, but there was no legal way to get it. "Laws which put seriously ill, vulnerable people in a position where they have to deal with the criminal underworld to obtain medicine they have been authorized to take violate the constitutional right to security of the person," he wrote.
Ottawa's record on this issue is not something to be proud of. It is a cavalcade of misinformation, lame excuses, delaying tactics and outright obstinacy that goes back more than six years. In the original 1997 ruling involving epileptic marijuana user Terry Parker, an Ontario court ruled that federal marijuana laws violated Mr. Parker's constitutional rights. Ottawa appealed the ruling, and lost. Three years ago, an appeal court gave the government a year to exempt medical users.
Ottawa adopted the regulations on access to medical marijuana, which set out the requirements a patient would have to meet to use marijuana legally. Then-health-minister Allan Rock contracted with a grower in Flin Flon, Man., to produce marijuana in an abandoned mine for clinical research and medical use. Since Ms. McLellan took over, however, the process has ground to a virtual halt. There has been no medical supply from the mine, because of a series of issues raised by the department, including the potency of the supply and the question of whether there was enough for clinical research and medical use.
In his January ruling, Judge Lederman gave the government six months to provide access to legal marijuana. And what did the department do? It devoted most of its efforts to an appeal. Last month, the Ontario Court of Appeal refused to suspend the ruling, saying Judge Lederman had postponed the date on which his decision would take effect "to enable something to be done, not to enable an appeal to be completed." Finally, at the 12th hour, Health Canada announced that about 1,650 packets of marijuana were ready to be shipped and that the 582 patients who are entitled to use it could have theirs within a week.
Ms. McLellan is clearly doing so under protest, however. Even as it announced its plan, Health Canada warned that "this interim policy can be amended or suspended at any time," and it is still appealing the Lederman ruling. The minister argues that marijuana has not been shown to have medical benefits; but it has not been shown to have any life-threatening effects, either. If patients who are terminally or chronically ill believe that it eases their pain, and the courts have agreed that they should be provided with it, why has the Health Minister done everything she can to deny them that right?
It's a shame the government had to be dragged kicking and screaming into complying with a legal decision rendered six years ago, and that Ms. McLellan seems determined to dig her heels in until the bitter end.