Pubdate: Tue, 20 Aug 2002
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2002, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Andre Picard, Carolyn Abraham


Uneasy McLellan Backs Off Plan To Supply Patients With Federally Grown 

Canada's Health Minister has all but snuffed out the government's 
much-ballyhooed plans to supply marijuana as medicine.

Anne McLellan says that she feels uncomfortable with the idea of people 
smoking pot to relieve pain, and that Ottawa will not distribute marijuana 
for medicinal purposes until clinical trials are completed -- trials that 
have yet to begin.

Ending months of silence and speculation that the federal government may be 
backing away from its controversial $5.7-million project to grow 
"medicinal-grade" marijuana, Ms. McLellan made her comments yesterday while 
speaking to doctors at the annual meeting of the Canadian Medical 
Association in Saint John.

The doctors have led a powerful lobby against prescribing pot as medicine, 
arguing it has not been tested for safety or efficacy. As well, sources 
say, Ms. McLellan has been swayed by concerns from U.S. officials that 
Canada would be making cannabis more available.

The minister suggested yesterday that the courts forced the government to 
adopt the controversial marijuana-as-medicine plan, and that she was 
looking to Canada's highest court for a way out.

"I hope this whole issue gets before the Supreme Court of Canada fairly 
soon so we will have the opportunity to reargue this case before the 
Supreme Court so we can get some clarity about what is happening here," she 

But Toronto lawyer Alan Young, who has led court challenges to make 
marijuana legal and accessible, said Ms. McLellan is either "confused, or 
she's being disingenuous." There is no case heading to the Supreme Court 
that deals with marijuana as medicine, he said.

In fact, Mr. Young said, the federal government actually opted not to take 
the medical marijuana issue to the top court after the Ontario Court of 
Appeal upheld the right of Torontonian Terry Parker to smoke pot to ease 
his epileptic seizures.

It was that landmark decision in 2000 that prompted Ottawa to create its 
current medical-marijuana program. That is because the court gave the 
government 12 months to amend the law that made it illegal for sick people 
to possess pot.

If the government had not acted in that time frame, it would not have been 
a crime for anyone to possess marijuana.

"The federal Department of Justice made a decision not to appeal to the 
Supreme Court at that time," said Mr. Young, who had represented Mr. Parker 
in the case. What's more, he noted, Ms. McLellan was the federal justice 
minister at the time.

The only pot-related case heading to the Supreme Court is to be heard later 
this fall and it involves the larger question of whether the federal 
government has the right to bar the recreational use of the drug, Mr. Young 

Ms. McLellan's unexpected comments in Saint John followed a question from 
Kingston physician Raju Hajela and she initially joked, "Just a minute ago, 
I thought to myself: 'I'm going to get out of here without a question about 
medical marijuana.' "

Dr. Hajela said he was angry about government regulations permitting 
certain patients to use pot because "there is no scientific evidence for 
the benefits of marijuana." A single joint, he said, is as harmful as 10 

The minister, clearly uncomfortable, spoke inconclusively for several 
minutes in response. Ms. McLellan said marijuana should be subject to the 
same standards as other prescription drugs and agreed it was hypocritical 
for her department to allow pot smoking while working to reduce 
tobacco-smoking rates.

"I understand the issues that we in this room have and feel in relation to 
the lack of scientific evidence, possible liability issues and the fact 
that the federal Department of Health does find itself in a slightly ironic 
position when I am responsible for the single largest campaign in the 
federal government -- the anti-smoking campaign," she said.

Ms. McLellan then added: "I don't mean to say that the courts made me do 
it, or made [former health minister] Allan [Rock] do it, although there is 
some truth to that. The courts took us down a certain path."

Mr. Rock, who is now Minister of Industry, met the court-imposed deadline 
and introduced regulations in 2001 permitting medically qualified patients 
- -- anyone from AIDS patients to back-pain sufferers -- to use marijuana. 
The government also hired a company to grow massive quantities of marijuana 
in an old mine in Flin Flon, Man.

At least 806 patients have qualified under these special regulations to 
date. But many of them face a desperate Catch-22: being legally entitled to 
possess a drug that it remains illegal to buy.

None of the 250 kilograms of pot harvested so far has made its way into the 
hands of patients. What's more, the government is paying Saskatoon-based 
Prairie Plant Systems Inc. to produce 400-kilograms of marijuana a year for 
the next four years.

A group of eight patients is now heading to Ontario Superior Court to get 
access to the Manitoba supply.

Ms. McLellan said she is "not insensitive to those who feel it helps in 
their final days or acute-illness situations" but said she owed it to 
Canadians to ensure that all therapeutic drugs be rigorously tested before 
approval and use.

Doctors in attendance applauded Ms. McLellan's speech, in particular her 
acknowledgment that she felt a "certain level of discomfort" about 
marijuana as medicine.

The Canadian Medical Association and its insurer, the Canadian Medical 
Protective Association, have told physicians not to sign patients' requests 
to be federally approved to possess cannabis because prescribing an 
untested drug could leave them vulnerable to legal action.

Henry Haddad, president of the CMA, said that he was "very encouraged" by 
the Ms. McLellan's statements.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens