Pubdate: Fri, 03 Aug 2001
Source: Winnipeg Free Press (CN MB)
Copyright: 2001 Winnipeg Free Press
Author:  Alexandra Paul, with files from Canadian Press and the Globe and Mail
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal - Canada)


Few MDs Willing To Prescribe Marijuana

ALTHOUGH an old Manitoba copper mine has become Canada's first legal
marijuana garden, patients craving a toke will have better luck
scrounging it on the street than getting doctors to prescribe it.

Yesterday, few doctors canvassed in a dozen medical clinics, walk-ins
and private offices -- including specialists and family doctors --
would even take calls on medical marijuana, let alone write a

At the same time, federal Health Minister Allan Rock was plunging down
a mine shaft in Flin Flon for a tour of the first and only
government-regulated marijuana farm.

Security is so tight that the mine has a security restriction higher
than Winnipeg's federal microbiology lab, where deadly viruses like
Ebola are handled.

The blinding glare of powerful grow lights, a heavy musky aroma and a
forest of fecund flowering plants greeted Rock, who made the tour with
only a handful of reporters.

"It's an incredible experience to see this operation," he

The subterranean gardeners -- under contract with Saskatoon berry
farmers Prairie Plant Systems -- held a brief ceremony for the health
minister, unveiling a plaque dubbing the $5.7 million area the Rock

But critics and advocates alike say it's going take more than ink
about a politician's visit to quell criticism of regulations for the
medical use of marijuana.

Critics say the rules are not only too restrictive, but the mine won't
produce enough pot to meet demand and it won't be strong enough for
people suffering from AIDS, arthritis, neurological disorders such as
multiple sclerosis or glaucoma, and terminal cancer.

Patients must be very sick or dying for doctors to vouch for them in
order to win a photo ID permit from Health Canada to consume or grow
marijuana. Fewer than 300 such licences to consume pot have been

Doctors are lining up coast to coast to oppose being named as
gatekeepers to the controlled substance.

They don't want any part of it -- particularly one fuzzy federal
category called "reasonable use".

In addition to terminally ill or very sick patients being allowed
access to marijuana, there is a third category under federal
regulation for "anything else that is reasonable," said Dr. Bill Pope,
registrar of Manitoba's College of Physicians and Surgeons.

"We've had difficulty with that, because it's so nebulous. It's very
unclear and that's the real problem. The legislation is so poorly
defined," Pope said.

The Canadian Medical Association has also raised strong objections,
saying regulations ignore normal protocols of rigorous clinical
trials, putting patients and doctors in a precarious position over a
controlled drug with no proof it is safe or effective.

Doctors argue they will have to fend off a steady stream of addicts
beating a path to their doors.

The college is taking calls from doctors anxious to avoid dust-ups
over their role as legal pushers.

"And it's only since yesterday that it's been legal," said Pope, who
fields the anxious queries.

In one case, a patient walked into a Winnipeg doctor's office angrily
demanding a prescription that the doctor refused.

"Physicians are the ones who must prescribe it and they are the ones
who are required (to do paperwork for federal officials) to approve
who grows it.

"The wording of the legislation puts physicians in a Catch-22 . . .if
the (health) minister has concerns he can complain directly to the
provincial colleges," Pope said.

"That's not likely to encourage physicians to give it a try. Most
physicians would rather have little contact with the disciplinary side
of their regulatory body," Pope said wryly.

Rock said yesterday when a government launches a groundbreaking policy
there are bound to be problems.

"I don't pretend they are perfect. We can adapt and adjust these
regulations to overcome problems that arise," Rock said.

One University of Manitoba law professor said making pot legal for
medical reasons is a good first step, although the way the government
is regulating it is all wrong.

Barney Sneiderman said he can't see the sense in setting up a Fort
Knox government farm for home-grown pot, not when regulations allow
for individuals to grow their own or get it from someone else with a
permit to grow it.

The other question is whether the quality of the pot is potent enough
or too potent for patients who don't like feeling stoned. The Flin
Flon crop is grown from mixed seeds culled from RCMP drug seizures.

That's also a concern for doctors, who don't know how they are to
judge doses or grades of pot.

Advocates of decriminalizing marijuana, like Sneiderman, and doctors
part company on the plant's medicinal value.

"This is so ridiculous," Sneiderman said. "The fact is, there are
people who could benefit from it and with all the evidence even though
it is anecdotal, you'd think doctors would be eager to prescribe it."

He even admits procuring it once for a man dying of

"You can headline that: Law professor admits being a narcotic
trafficker and is proud of it!' " Sneiderman said, recounting the tale
of finding a dealer to buy an ounce of pot.

"Legally, I committed a crime. Morally, I felt good about it. I did a
good deed."

The Rock Garden has garnered international headlines and prompted some
groups to hold Canada's policy up as an example of compassion that
other governments should follow.

In the United States, where a person can be sent to jail for as much
as a year for possession of a joint and five years for growing a
plant, pro-marijuana lobby groups praised Ottawa.

Rock said he isn't worried Canada's liberal medicinal marijuana policy
might draw the wrath of President George W. Bush's

Canada is lagging behind the lead set by countries like Portugal,
Spain, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland with far more liberal drug laws.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake