Digging up the Grass


A User’s Guide to Medical Marijuana

If you are a Canadian with specific health problems and have a supportive doctor or two, it is now perfectly legal for you to smoke marijuana. It has been since July, 2001. Because I have muscle spasms resulting from multiple sclerosis, I am one of those who is officially authorized not only to possess dried cannabis, but to grow my own. Perhaps you, too, could qualify.

The combination of marijuana and government regulation (other than its prohibition by law) is new and unusual for Canada. In 1971, the LeDain Royal Commission, initiated by the Trudeau government, called for the decriminalization of cannabis possession for personal use. The federal government waited 30 years to take a teensy step in that direction with the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations and the creation of the Office of Cannabis Medical Access, under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

To qualify to possess dried cannabis or to produce and keep medical marijuana, one must fit into one of three categories:

Category 1. A person must suffer from a symptom associated with a medical condition for which the prognosis is death within 12 months. (Few of us wish to qualify on these grounds.)

Category 2. Applicants who qualify here must experience symptoms related to a medical condition or its treatment, such as severe pain, persistent muscular spasms, cachexia (general physical wasting and malnutrition usually associated with chronic disease), anorexia, weight loss, nausea and/or seizures associated with one of the following medical conditions: spinal cord injury; spinal cord disease; cancer; AIDS/HIV infection; a severe form of arthritis; multiple sclerosis; epilepsy.

Category 3. People in this category experience symptoms of any other medical condition.

In order to qualify under Category 1, a medical practitioner must sign a medical declaration attesting that you are what you claim. For Category 2, a medical specialist (in my case, my neurologist) must sign; for Category 3, two medical specialists must sign.

A person wishing to possess marijuana must submit an application, together with a passport-style photo, indicating, among other things, the daily dosage desired. A person wishing to cultivate marijuana must submit a separate application outlining the conditions under which the pot will be grown, the number of plants to be cultivated, whether it will take place indoors or outdoors, and so on. If you’d like someone else to grow it for you, another form is required.

The application forms and the entire process are severely bureaucratic and arbitrary, but after only several weeks, I had in my possession both a “Temporary Authorization to Possess Dried Marihuana” and a “Temporary Licence to Produce Marihuana.” Soon after that I received my photo ID card, which I can flash, if necessary, at any police officer.

Interested in applying? If you have a computer and access to the Internet you can find the regulations, application forms and other useful information at Health Canada’s Office of Cannabis Medical Access website: www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hecs-sesc/ocma/index.htm. If you are not web connected, you can write to the Office of Cannabis Medical Access, Drug Strategy and Controlled Substances Programme, Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch,
Health Canada, Address Locator 3503B, Ottawa, ON, K1A 1B9, or call toll-free: 1-866-337-7705.

Once you have the licence, then what? Health Canada has not advised those now licensed to possess or grow marijuana on how they can obtain dried marijuana or seeds. When I called the Office of Cannabis Medical Access to ask those questions, I was told that it is up to me – from which I concluded that I should return to the person who had been supplying my needs up to that point. I didn’t find that response very satisfactory, but I understand that, one of these days, the Flin Flon underground marijuana garden in an abandoned mine will be making high-quality weed available.

Across the country, groups have appeared to fill the gap that the government has created (that is: we’ve made it legal for you to possess and cultivate your own grass, but you have to go back to the street to obtain weed or seeds.)

For instance, an organization in Toronto, where I live, will sell you medical marijuana if you meet its eligibility conditions, which include a doctor’s okay but are less stringent than the federal government’s requirements. I joined its membership and was able to purchase high-quality marijuana from it (it has a menu to select from). I was told the organization has an understanding with the Toronto police, who will not hassle customers, just as long as they behave themselves, do not loiter outside the building and won’t resell product on the street.

Similar groups are based in Vancouver, Victoria and Nelson, B.C. In Calgary, there is the Cannabis Research Foundation. Some websites will provide marijuana seeds. I’m certain that there are many other sources as well. All you have to do is search the web or ask around, and you’ll find what you need.

My new photo ID card is the envy of everyone I know. (It’s a new experience being envied because I have a disability.) I’ve been smoking some exceptionally fine weed. Marijuana really does relieve the spasticity in my legs, which is both a blessing and a curse – a blessing because the tension disappears from my legs, but a curse because it temporarily makes it much more difficult for me to walk (“spaghetti legs”). Spasticity has its merits, it seems.

A final word of caution: The President of the Canadian Medical Association has sent a letter to its members across the country – i.e., all Canadian doctors – advising them that the CMA “opposes the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations, as we believe they create significant concerns for both you and your patients.” The CMA letter explains that “we believe that the lack of information on the indications, risks and benefits of medical marijuana hinders your ability to properly inform patients and has the potential to threaten the patient-physician relationship. CMA does not support physicians controlling access to substances for which routine pre-market regulatory review of safety, purity and efficacy, as required for current prescription drugs, has not occurred…

“In these unprecedented circumstances whereby physicians are required to act as a gatekeeper to an unproven drug, while being exposed to full liability for its impact, you should be aware of the implications of the regulations when considering an application request.”

Fortunately for me, my neurologist approved my application before the CMA letter was distributed.

(John Feld is a freelance writer living in Toronto.)


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