Pubdate: Tue, 03 Jul 2007
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2007, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Brennan Clark
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal - Canada)


Registered Users Refuse To Pay For Government-Grown Cannabis They Say 
Is Low In Quality And Overpriced

VICTORIA -- For all Jason Wilcox cares, Health Canada's debt 
collectors can follow him to the grave.

Mr. Wilcox, a terminally ill medical marijuana user living in 
Victoria, owes the federal government more than $6,400 for cannabis 
he purchased through Health Canada's medical marijuana program last winter.

But like many who subscribe to the federal program, Mr. Wilcox is 
neither able nor willing to pay for his government-grown pot.

Not only is the product low in quality and high in price, it should 
be covered by the health-care system like any other drug, he said.

"I'm living out my years and I'm not going to pay a cent for any of 
this. I truly believe this medicine should be provided for free," 
said Mr. Wilcox, who lives in subsidized housing in the city's James 
Bay neighbourhood.

"I'm just one of many examples and I'm speaking out for everyone who 
can't speak for themselves on this issue."

He's not alone. It's estimated that 227 of 538 registered users who 
order their marijuana from the government have been cut off for 
failing to pay for the product. About 4 per cent of those accounts 
have been turned over to collection agencies.

Health Canada provided updated figures this month indicating that the 
total debt for registered users now exceeds $300,000.

The rising tide of unpaid bills comes amid reports that Health Canada 
is charging subscribers 1,500 per cent more than it pays for its pot.

The figures, obtained by the advocacy group Canadians for Safe Access 
and released to the media late last month, show that Health Canada 
pays Prairie Plant Systems $10 an ounce and charges patients about $150.

And that has advocates accusing the government of price-gouging 
low-income people with chronic illnesses.

"It's the combination of sending collection agencies after people who 
are critically ill for pot that's already been marked up 1,500 per 
cent that's so ridiculous," said Philippe Lucas, founder of the 
Vancouver Island Compassion Society, a quasi-legal provider of 
medical marijuana.

Health Canada spokesperson Renee Bergeron said recent news reports 
looked only at the bulk purchase price and ignored additional costs 
such as testing and distribution.

Health Canada can't release details about the program's costs due to 
the privacy requirements of its contract with Prairie Plant Systems, 
the company that grows marijuana under contract to the government.

However, Ms. Bergeron said the price charged to medical marijuana 
users "does not fully recover the costs associated with the 
production and distribution" of the pot.

Diagnosed HIV-positive 13 years ago, Mr. Wilcox uses marijuana to 
battle nausea, headaches, muscle pain and other side effects of the 
powerful anti-retroviral drugs that keep him alive. Marijuana also 
helps counter bouts of anger and aggression brought on by 
muscle-building steroids he injects to keep his body from wasting 
away. Two years ago, Mr. Wilcox's 6-foot-1-inch frame weighed just 
155 pounds. Now he's back up to 216.

"I had a choice between a needle and a cane and I chose the needle," 
he said. "It's a quality of life issue. I've got another five years 
before my organs start to fail from all the [retroviral] drugs."

The federal licence Mr. Wilcox was granted three years ago permits 
him to possess and use up to 10 grams of marijuana a day - 20 to 30 
joints. Five grams is the norm for most medical marijuana licensees, 
but Mr. Wilcox has developed a high tolerance. In addition to smoking 
marijuana, he makes pot cookies and uses marijuana butter liberally.

Like the majority of Canada's 1,774 registered users, Mr. Wilcox 
prefers to grow his own "medicine."

When his marijuana crop failed last fall, Mr. Wilcox started ordering 
marijuana from the government. Over a four-month period starting last 
December, Health Canada sent him 1,200 grams of pot, ordered through 
a 1-800 number and delivered by Purolator.

"I was talking to a machine so I just kept ordering it," he said. "I 
never once talked to a real person."

The final shipment arrived in March, with a letter informing him that 
his supply had been cut off and his account may be turned over to a 
collection agency.

At $5 a gram, the government cannabis costs about half as much as 
high-end bud grown by local compassion clubs. Mr. Wilcox, who 
supports himself and a seven-year-old daughter on disability benefits 
of less than $1,000 a month, admits he had no intention of paying for 
the product.

"When you have a choice between keeping your meds down at any cost, 
even if it means having a bad credit rating, I figure it comes down 
to survival of the fittest," he said. "If that makes me a criminal, so be it."

Mr. Wilcox's roommate, Ann Genovy, is in debt as well. Ms. Genovy, 
who is also HIV-positive, ordered two $1,500 shipments before Health 
Canada severed her supply line. The couple's neighbour in the 
complex, Linda Rushton, ordered one shipment and now owes more than $1,500.

The mounting problems with the Health Canada program are symptomatic 
of the government's reluctant role as a legalized drug dealer.

In 2001, Health Canada signed a five-year contract with Prairie Plant 
Systems to grow cannabis on an experimental basis in an abandoned 
mine shaft in Manitoba.

Ordered by the courts in 2003 to make marijuana available to 
critically ill people, Ottawa appealed the decision for another two 
years before finally agreeing to distribute the product it had been 
growing for years.

Ms. Bergeron said the government made it clear from the start that it 
will not provide patients with free marijuana.

"Our policies have always stated there will be a cost to the 
product," she said. "There's no provision that allows the patient to 
be exempt from payment."

Despite recent court rulings, marijuana is "not approved as a 
therapeutic drug in Canada" and generally not covered by the public 
health-care system, Ms. Bergeron added.

THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, is available free of charge 
under the public system.

But Mr. Wilcox claims synthetic versions of the drug do a poor job of 
relieving his symptoms.

With his personal grow-op back in production, he still has about 150 
grams of leftover government marijuana. The vacuum-sealed foil 
pouches sit in his kitchen cupboard like so many packages of fresh 
ground coffee.

Unopened product can be sent back to the government, but Mr. Wilcox 
said he plans to keep the government bud to protest against the way 
Health Canada has managed the medical marijuana program.

"I'll probably cook with it. That's about all it's good for."

Marijuana Timeline

1923: Marijuana is made illegal under the Opium and Drug Narcotic Act.

1961: Canada increases penalties to seven years for marijuana 
cultivation and to 14 years for marijuana importation. 1973: 
Politicians such as prime minister Pierre Trudeau and Progressive 
Conservative MP Joe Clark are among those who support 
decriminalization following the findings of the Le Dain Commission's 
inquiry into the non-medical use of drugs.

1992: The federal Conservatives under prime minister Brian Mulroney 
introduce a bill to double penalties for marijuana possession, but 
the government is defeated before the bill becomes law.

May, 1997: The B.C. Compassion Club Society becomes the first 
registered non-profit dispenser of medical marijuana, followed in 
short order by its Ontario counterpart, the Toronto Compassion 
Centre. Both operate in a legal grey area under constant threat of prosecution.

May, 1999: Ontario AIDS patient Jim Wakeford becomes the first legal 
medical cannabis user in Canada when the courts grant him an 
exemption under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act

July, 2000: Ontario Court of Appeal rules that Canada's marijuana 
laws violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

January, 2001: Health Canada launches the country's first legal 
marijuana growing facility in an abandoned mine shaft in Manitoba.

July, 2001: Canada becomes the first country in the world to legalize 
the medicinal use of marijuana. Legal users with terminal illnesses 
and chronic conditions are issued photo ID cards.

October, 2003: The Ontario Court of Appeal declares aspects of the 
government's medical marijuana program unconstitutional and orders 
Ottawa to begin distributing the product.

February, 2005: The Canadian Press reports that 127 of 278 users have 
failed or refused to pay for their government marijuana.

December, 2006: The Conservative government cuts $4-million destined 
for medical cannabis research.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman