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PHOTO: National Post
There is a drug that provides relief for the inner-ocular pressure caused by my husband’s glaucoma, it soothes the anxiety that being visually impaired in a world built for sighted people can create and it improves his overall quality of life. Currently, he’s able to grow it himself. The Canadian federal government said he could, and gave him a special license to produce what they call marihuana with an “h.”
In 2008 my husband, Steven Stairs, started the long process to obtain a legal license to possess medical cannabis, it took about a year from filling out the application form to getting it approved. Starting in 2009, Steve was able to begin growing his own medicine.
Unlike other medications, a doctor has to attain approval from Health Canada in order to prescribe cannabis as a medicine. There are three types of licenses.
License to Possess Dried Marihuana: This license allows the patient to possess dried cannabis, the amount you are allowed to have on your person and that you are allowed to store is dependent on the gram allowance designated by your doctor. The gram allowances are fairly arbitrary as they were designated by Health Canada, the maximum amount of cannabis allowed by Health Canada is fifteen grams a day, which is about a half an ounce of dried cannabis.
Personal Production License: This license allows the patient to grow cannabis for their own personal use, like with the possession license the amount of plants allowed by the license is dependent on the gram allowance determined by your doctor and Health Canada.
Designated Grower License: This license allows the patient to designate someone to grow their medicine for them, as many patients have ailments that prevent them from being able to grow, a provision was created so the patient could entrust someone else to grow for them.
This licensing system sounds good in theory, but in practice it’s confusing and prevents many patients from accessing their medication safely. Having to obtain a license from Health Canada creates an air of illegitimacy around the idea of medical cannabis and many doctors are unwilling to fill out the paperwork requesting the Canadian government for permission to prescribe. As far as I know, cannabis is the only medication where this is required.
Steven was able to get his eye specialist to fill out the form and his general practitioner also agreed to the treatment, but many patients have had a hard time finding a legitimate doctor to sign and have reported having cannabis recommended as a treatment option by their doctor who still won’t sign the paperwork.
Many less-than-ethical doctors took advantage of this stigma and began signing licenses on the side, for a fee. For those of you living south of the border in the States, trips to the doctor in Canada are covered by provincial health care, doctors get compensated for seeing and treating patients by the province, so anytime anyone is charging for a needed medical procedure, its crooked.
A noteworthy case was that of Dr. Kamermans in Ontario, who ran a roving clinic that saw patients across the country and signed thousands of patients into the program. Again, this sounds great in theory, until you find out he was charging patients anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for a signature on a form. Other doctors around the country followed suit.
All this profiteering and abuse of patients was going unnoticed until a news piece by Canadian news program 16×9 on Global blew the lid off the powder keg. This alerted Health Canada that changes needed to be made to the medical marijuana system.
This year Health Canada announced new changes to the medical marijuana program, the Personal Production Licenses and Designated Grower Permits are being phased out and the current grow your own model is being replaced with a private business model.
There are some good points to the new system. Cannabis will now be prescribed like any other prescription drug and doctors will not have to obtain a license from Health Canada for each individual patient. However, the removal of the grow permits has left a bad taste in the mouth of many patients, as Steven put it when the changes were announced “They’re taking our way of life away.” They’re taking our way of life away and replacing it with one that is far more expensive.
I don’t think anyone argues there should not be a commercial growing license or there should not be some type of frame work for selling medicine. There are many patients who legitimately cannot grow their own medication and there should be a marketplace where they can buy medication that works for them and is of reliable quality.
Many patients who have been growing their own medicine for years don’t want to give up their ability to grow. They grow the medicine that works for them and they don’t want to pay more for something that is the same as or less effective than the medicine they currently produce. There should be provisions for growing your own and for commercial sales, not provisions for one to the exclusion of the other, which has been the method for both regulatory systems introduced by Health Canada.
In late June, Steven called Health Canada to ask some questions about the new program which, effective April 1, 2014, will make his medical grow operation a crime. The operator proceeded to tell him things he already knew about the new system, such as he can no longer hold a Personal Production License and a prescription from the new program at the same time.
She went on to tell him if he applies to be a Licensed Commercial Producer under the new system he would not be able to sell medication to himself and he would have to obtain his medication from another Licensed Commercial Grower. This doesn’t sound so bad if you live in a city like Vancouver or Toronto where the bulk of commercial growers will probably be licensed, but it stings a lot if you live in Manitoba where the medical cannabis community is fairly small, the need won’t be present for nearly as many growers in Western Canada where we currently live, so there is a strong likelihood under the new system, even if Steven became a Licensed Commercial Grower he would have to have his medicine shipped in from another province, it sounds like a sad prospect when you have four foot tall plants in the first week of flower taking in the summer sun in your backyard.
It’s especially difficult for Steven because he’s gone out of his way to follow the law in regards to his medication. Getting a Personal Production License under the current system is extremely out of the way for most people, he went the extra mile after building his room to call local law enforcement to let them know he was growing and he’s offered on multiple occasions to let law enforcement come into his home to inspect his grow room, no one has answered that call.
Steven reached out to his neighbors to let them know that he would be growing. He answered their questions and alleviated concerns they might have. Most people in the neighborhood have been extremely receptive towards his transparency, when friends visit them they’ll point Steven out and say “He’s the one who grows” with a big smile and a laugh. Neighbors are so receptive that there have been occasions where Steven has been asked to talk to neighborhood kids about drugs.
Clearly his neighbors don’t view him as a risk to the community as scandal-plagued St. Boniface MP Shelly Glover would love to imply. Glover likes to conflate the risks of illegal growing operations with legal, medical growing operations. She believes that somehow cannabis, a plant, cannot be grown safely in one’s home under any circumstances.
He wanted to grow as safely as possible. He was open to recommendations in regards to how to make it safer, no one from the government has ever contacted us asking to inspect. As far as what is known, there have been no inspections of any legal growing operations during the entire duration of the Medical Marijuana Access Regulations (MMAR), regulations that have been in place since 2001.
The mismanagement of MMAR is not the fault of patients. It is the fault of the government, it is the fault of Health Canada, it is the fault of crooked people who took advantage of a broken system that was designed for the sick and disabled to have one pathway of access to a needed medical treatment.
Those who are responsible for the broken nature of MMAR should be held responsible, not the patients. I challenge the government to let my people grow. Don’t give them rights and take them away.