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Medicinal marijuana users suffer social stigma, despite new regs

The federal government introduced new regulations on medicinal marijuana last month, but local users still complain of social judgment and stigma.

While researching last week’s story on the new medicinal marijuana regulations, The Goat contacted more than a dozen local users and growers. Four were willing to speak on the issue, but nobody was willing to speak on the record. Even those legally permitted to possess or grow medical marijuana refused to speak on the record.

Pot taboo? or Pot-a-boo!

 Marijuana confiscated by Valemount RCMP in October 2012 after an effort to crack down on drug runners through the Robson Valley. One local contacted for this story who has a license to grow medical cannabis complained of being “harassed” by RCMP. Photo: Laura Keil

Marijuana confiscated by Valemount RCMP in October 2012 after an effort to crack down on drug runners through the Robson Valley. One local contacted for this story who has a license to grow medical cannabis complained of being “harassed” by RCMP. Photo: Laura Keil

One local said they feared being targeted for break-ins by those looking for marijuana, a fear created by the black market. But this local was also wary of social stigma.

“Some people think, ‘Oh, he’s just a pothead getting a free ride.’ And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

This local suffers from debilitating back pain, and medicinal cannabis is the best medication he’s found to alleviate the pain without inducing a host of side effects.

Another local who lives close to a grow-op and dislikes the odour, feared being judged by friends who wouldn’t agree with her opinion that marijuana should not be grown at home.

“It’s a touchy subject for a lot of people, and I don’t want to offend anybody.”

Another comment by this local points to a stubborn social stigma: “Where I come from, it’s people who are lower class that use weed.”

Don Skogstad, a criminal prosecutor in Nelson, says the taboo around medicinal use of marijuana has resulted in ridiculously strict rules about where and when it can be consumed.

“If you look at the rules in US states where it’s been legalized, you can drink in a lot of places, but you cannot consume marijuana anywhere in public view.”

Skogstad said he recently gave a lecture on medicinal marijuana at the University of Toronto, but that the university didn’t want “medical marijuana” and “the University of Toronto” to appear in the same ad.

“And yet it’s a perfectly legal, viable, court-ordered constitutional right.”

Skogstad pointed to a number of documentaries that suggest marijuana was treated with a racist paranoia in the early 20th century, targeting minorities more than dealing with the scientific aspects of the drug.

“And that persists today, that it’s a really bad thing, when in fact it’s got genuine, proven, medical benefits.”

Medicinal value still questioned

“You’ve got Health Canada claiming it’s not a therapeutic treatment, and then you have them asking doctors to prescribe it. They’re asking doctors to prescribe a substance illegal in any other context.” -BC Compassion Club Society.  Photo: Thomas Rohner
“You’ve got Health Canada claiming it’s not a therapeutic treatment, and then you have them asking doctors to prescribe it. They’re asking doctors to prescribe a substance illegal in any other context.” -BC Compassion Club Society. Photo: Thomas Rohner

But the BC College of Physicians and Surgeons does not acknowledge any proven medical benefits. A letter in their College Quarterly publication this past March, written by CEO Heidi Oetter, said “in the absence of scientific evidence, many physicians have been reluctant to authorize its use.” Oetter wrote that the medical community acknowledges possible relief to those suffering from a terminal illness or chronic pain “when conventional therapies cease to have an effect.”

This point is untrue, however, to patients who choose cannabis instead of “conventional therapies”. The local suffering from chronic back pain, for example, says that while he used narcotics prescribed by his doctor, he experienced a series of complications including appetite and sleep problems.

“You can’t take narcotics every day of your life. Otherwise you’re just not you.”

Dr. Paul Hornby, a pathologist from the Vancouver area, has been studying cannabis for 15 years, focusing on its applications for cancer patients for the past six years. He says there’s “tonnes of scientific evidence” on cannabis’ medicinal applications. He says the power of the pharmaceutical industry and their lobbying efforts prevent cannabis from being recognized for its medicinal use.

“As a medicine, there’s no way the pharmaceutical industry can afford to have [cannabis] legal because they’ll lose their analgesic market, they’ll lose their anti-depressant market, and they can’t have that.”

Oetter’s letter says, “If and when appropriate research is conducted, physicians may eventually have accurate information in the form of a clinical practice guideline on the use of marijuana.” But Hornby points out that to develop a clinical guideline, clinical trials have to be run and “we’re not allowed to right now because there’s no licensing for that.”

Jamie Shaw, communications director for the BC Compassion Club Society, calls the letter by Oetter “ridiculous” but acknowledges the difficult position the new regulations put doctors in. She points to the preamble of the new rules which says that nowhere in the world is cannabis acknowledged as a therapeutic remedy.

“You’ve got Health Canada claiming it’s not a therapeutic treatment, and then you have them asking doctors to prescribe it. They’re asking doctors to prescribe a substance illegal in any other context.”

In her letter, Oetter wrote, “It is irresponsible of Health Canada to download the risks, legal and otherwise, to physicians as gatekeepers to marijuana.” Oetter did not respond to an interview request by press time.

Despite the College’s stance on medical cannabis, doctors and nurses can dispense the drug directly to patients under the new regulations.  But as the licensing and regulatory body for all physicians and surgeons in BC they have considerable influence. At least one doctor local to the Valley cited this letter as his basis for refusing to prescribe medical marijuana.

Meanwhile, taboos persist
Shaw says that patients who come to the BCCCS wellness centre often don’t realize the social stigma they’re under until talking to somebody without being judged.

“It’s a huge relief, but they didn’t know anything different.”

Shaw says many patients have medical conditions that already have a stigma attached, like HIV or mental health issues. And many can’t even tell their neighbours or family about their use.

“Their families can’t figure out why they’re doing better. They’re happy they’re doing better, but the patients can’t tell their families a lot of times.”

As long as the social stigma persists, patients using medical marijuana are unlikely to lobby for their constitutional right to the medication.

New rules won’t improve community safety, lawyer says

 “A lot of this is based on the same old emotional, gut-reaction, stigma stuff of reefer madness…” -John Conroy, criminal prosecutor. Photo: Thomas Rohner

“A lot of this is based on the same old emotional, gut-reaction, stigma stuff of reefer madness…” -John Conroy, criminal prosecutor. Photo: Thomas Rohner

Every press release issued by Health Canada on the new medicinal marijuana regulations last month said that Canadian communities would be safer as a result of the new regulations, but none of them said how or why that was the case.

Presumably, the government is implicitly referring to the same-old fears associated with cannabis grow-ops: fire and mould risks and drug-related violence.  But the reality, according to experts, does not support these implied fears nor the government’s assertion that communities will be safer.

John Conroy, a criminal lawyer who has dealt with marijuana cases for 40 years, says he’s talked to a lot of lawyers in different BC municipalities who admit there hasn’t been a single fire from a medical grow-op yet, let alone a death from a fire, but they fear being the first municipality to have either.

“Statistics show that most house fires are in kitchens, and we’re not about to take kitchens out of people’s homes.”

Conroy said if grow-ops were properly inspected and permitted, mould wouldn’t be any more of a risk “than a person with a lot of house plants.” And he doubts the new rules will make Canadian communities safer since it’s the prohibition of the drug that creates the circumstances for violence.

“If you can’t go to the police when you’re ripped off, when you can’t resort to peaceful remedies, presumably you resort to violent remedies. We’ve known that since booze prohibition in the early days of the 20th century.”

As for young people, Conroy says it’s easier for them to access a drug on the black market than on a regulated market.

“The content of the drug is regulated then too, so you don’t have people dying from other stuff put into the drugs. That wouldn’t happen if the stuff was under control. It’s out of control because of prohibition.”

Last year the federal government brought in mandatory minimums for illegal grow-ops. The sentences range from 6 months for five plants up to two years for 500 plants. Conroy says organized crime will just get someone willing to carry out the jail sentence, while “mom and pop” operations will disappear.

“So the effect of mandatory minimums is that they squeeze the market and push the price up. When things on the black market become worth more, people shoot each other more because there’s a greater value when they get ripped off.”

Conroy said the regulations introduced in 2001 created a glut in the black market, mostly because many designate growers are growing beyond their allotment and selling it “out the back door”. The glut has driven black market prices down and subsequently reduced violence, but the government hasn’t acknowledged that, he said. Instead they’ve created regulations based on the exaggerated fear of gang-violence.

“A lot of this is based on the same old emotional, gut-reaction, stigma stuff of reefer madness, exacerbated by people thinking the drug war is still so bad that someone’s going to get shot in the crossfire because of a grow-op at the end of your street.”

Under the new regulations, private individuals can no longer grow in residential areas. Instead Licensed Commercial Producers will operate secure facilities.

Click HERE to read The Goat’s story on the new medicinal marijuana regulations.

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New medicinal marijuana regulations will quadruple cost for some users

Marihuana for Medical Purposes, MMPR, Medicinal marihuana access program, medicinal marihuana access regulations, MMAR, MMAP, Conservative Party of Canada, legalize marijuana, decriminalize marijuana
doctors and nurses can dispense the drug directly under the new regulations

Home grown medical marijuana will be a thing of the past under new regulations ushered in by the federal government last month.

The Marihuana For Medical Purposes Regulations came into effect last month replacing Health Canada’s Marihuana for Medical Purposes Program introduced in 2001, but both regimes will be used until April 1, 2014, to allow for a transition. “Marihuana” is how the government spells the drug in its legislation.

According to a press release on Health Canada’s website, the new regulations aim “to treat marihuana as much as possible like any other narcotic used for medical purposes” and to create “conditions for a new, commercial industry responsible for its production and distribution”.

The rules allowing medicinal cannabis to be grown in private dwellings will expire March 31, 2014, replaced by “Licensed Commercial Producers.” The Licensed Producers will operate secure facilities outside of residential areas and courier their product to users and health practitioners. Health Canada will also end its own production and distribution next March.
With the new rules patients will no longer have to apply to Health Canada directly because doctors and nurses can fill out an abbreviated application form. Patients then show this form to Licensed Producers or obtain dried marijuana from doctors or nurses, who are now allowed to dispense the drug directly.
Health Canada currently distributes medical marijuana for a subsidized price of $5/g, according to a cost-benefit analysis it released in December, 2012. The analysis estimates the cost of homegrown cannabis at $1.80/g-$2.80/g. The estimated cost under the new system is $8.80/g, plus shipping, but the market will ultimately set prices. That’s more than a four-fold increase for users who grow themselves.

Reaction to Regs

The BC Compassion Club Society was quick to respond to the new regulations. The Society distributes marijuana to medical users only. It does so illegally, but police have typically turned a blind eye.

The Society, which was consulted by the federal government in drafting the new rules, submitted a number of recommendations to Health Canada earlier this year. One recommendation was to keep personal grow licenses which drastically reduce the cost for patients, “many of whom are already burdened by extensive medical expenses” the Society wrote.
John Conroy, a BC criminal lawyer with 40 years experience in medicinal marijuana cases, said 60-70 per cent of people who apply for medical marijuana are poor.
Conroy is working on a constitutional challenge to the new rules. He says the new rules violate the constitutional rights of marijuana-using patients who will no longer be allowed to grow at home or buy from a home-growing supplier.

“If you have a contained unit, specially built and safe…if you’ve had it inspected and there’s some limits on numbers—instead of saying not at all—that would be reasonable.”

Those who complied with the old rules and invested in equipment and labour to produce their own cannabis are not being compensated under the new rules.

Conroy will challenge the restriction of medical marijuana to only the dried bud. The BC Supreme Court found the restriction unconstitutional last year and acknowledged the safe use of cannabis derivatives like salves and juice, which do not produce a “high.” The court gave the government one year to change the law. The government hasn’t complied.

Don Skogstad, a criminal lawyer in Nelson specializing in marijuana cases, says the continued limitation to cannabis derivatives is a deliberate oversight on the government’s part.

“The government claims that when [marijuana] is put into these derivatives, the THC is hidden. But I’m not aware of anybody who can get the THC back out of the derivative and use it for recreation any more. It’s an ideological decision.”

Jamie Shaw, director of communications for the BCCCS, says the limitation on dried marijuana is irrational and impractical.

“We have patients who are physically incapable of smoking.”

Shaw points out that patients in hospitals will be able to access the drug, but have no way of consuming it.

“You can’t bake it into cookies because you’re in a hospital, and you’re not allowed to smoke.”

Shaw, Skogstad and Conroy independently agreed the new rules don’t create an effective market structure. All three pointed to US dispensary models, where community-based centres can dispense the drug. Licensed Producers, on the other hand, will be limited to secure couriers and healthcare professionals willing to keep a stock. Skogstad points out that Licensed Producers will require a big capital investment and “without a dispensary or even just a pharmacy you could develop a relationship with, there’s no guarantee you’ll get your product to market.”

Skogstad also wonders if compassion clubs will survive the new regulations.

“If you’re [a Licensed Producer and] going to spend $2-million … are you not going to go to the government next April 1st and ask, ‘How do you allow these people to compete with me? How do you expect my business to grow?’”

Skogstad says for now tolerance by the local police force, usually non-RCMP, allow the clubs to operate.

The Valley RCMP detachment under Sgt. Darren Woroshelo couldn’t be reached for comment, despite multiple phone calls and over a week to respond.

Local Reaction

In addition to substantially raised costs, medicinal cannabis users in the Valley may have to travel further to access it.

Standard practise for shipping controlled substances via courier is to get a signature upon delivery. If nobody is there to sign, it gets sent to the closest terminal. Since Valley mail is delivered to post boxes, the closest terminal is either Kamloops or Prince George. Puralator, for example, doesn’t have an agent in the Valley qualified to hold packages of controlled substances. Their closest terminal is in Kamloops. Canada Post is the only local option for obtaining orders through secure courier.

The Goat interviewed a number of local users and growers, all of which requested to be anonymous citing concerns around possible thefts from their homes and fear of social stigma.

One Valley residents lives in the neighbourhood of a grow-op and is overwhelmed with the odour. The smell gets everywhere in her house and car.

“I don’t care if it’s legal or not, as long as it doesn’t affect me or my family.”

She’s been asking local government, along with some neighbours, to have a bylaw implemented.

Another local became a grower when his wife fell ill with terminal cancer in order to be her caregiver. After months of painkiller cocktails and liquid morphine, he started baking her cookies, which were more effective and improved her appetite. He suffers from MS but doesn’t experience enough pain to warrant medication. Should the time come though, he would turn to edible cannabis products.

“I wouldn’t buy any of the government controlled stuff, but good, strong home grown that works.”

A different local has been legally growing for about five years and said he’ll comply with the new rules, but doesn’t know what he’ll do for pain management. Compassion clubs are expensive and the government doesn’t know how to grow good product, he said.

“It’s trash. It may as well be ragweed from Mexico.”

Another local who uses medical marijuana legally for pain relief has switched from compassion clubs to Health Canada, which is subsidized up to 50 per cent. After March 31 he’ll have to find a Licensed Producer at a higher cost, however, and pay shipping fees.

He says going down the illegal route is not an option for him, out of consideration for his family.

Check next week’s Goat for a follow-up story on the social stigma surrounding users and how the government thinks the new regulations will make communities safer.

Sources

For BCCCS reaction to the new regulations, including recommendations, click here.

For Health Canada’s press releases on the new regulations, click here.

For Health Canada’s Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement, including a cost-benefit analysis, click here.