Ottawa reviewing Dutch medical marijuana policy

Canadian Press
Updated: Sun. Apr. 27 2003 11:52 PM ET

Under pressure from the courts to reform its medical marijuana policy, Health Canada is considering a Dutch option in which marijuana would be made available to needy patients at the corner pharmacy.
Senior Health Canada officials visited the Netherlands in February to learn more about a new law that allows pharmacies to distribute government marijuana to patients with a doctor's prescription.
The law, which became effective March 17, makes the Netherlands the first country in the world to treat marijuana like an ordinary prescription drug.
" It's an option, like there are many options," said Beth Pieterson, a Health Canada official who met with her counterparts in Amsterdam from Feb. 18 to 21.
Pieterson, director general of the drug strategy and controlled substances program, cautioned that no decisions have been made.
" Yes, we're looking at this but we're looking at everything else, too,'' she said in an interview from Ottawa.
Health Canada currently allows approved patients to smoke marijuana to relieve symptoms such as pain and nausea. But there's no direct legal supply of the substance, forcing patients to buy it on the street or from growers who cultivate plants obtained from non-legal sources.
In January, Justice Sidney Lederman of Ontario's Superior Court declared the Marijuana Medicinal Access Regulations unconstitutional.
" Laws which put seriously ill, vulnerable people in a position where they have to deal with the criminal underworld to obtain medicine they have been authorized to take violate the constitutional right to security of the person," Lederman wrote in a 40-page ruling.
He gave Ottawa until July 9 to fix the regulations or supply the pot itself. Health Canada has appealed the decision but the deadline remains.
" We are working towards having the appeal heard, with the hope that the deadline would change," said Pieterson.
But if Ottawa loses the appeal or can't change the deadline "we will be caught, and so we are looking at all our options.''
The Dutch have also been promoting co-operation between the two countries on the issue of medical marijuana.
Willem Scholten, a Netherlands government official, visited Ottawa on March 14 to discuss providing Dutch cannabis to Health Canada, among other issues.
" To us this is interesting too, because it gives some volume to our production,'' Scholten said in a Jan. 23 e-mail setting up the meeting. "Our growers have enough capacity.''
The e-mail and related material was obtained under the Access to Information Act.
Health Canada currently has a $5.7-million contract with a Flin Flon, Man., company that is growing certified marijuana for clinical trials only, but there have been production problems.
The Netherlands has also contracted out its marijuana production to several growers, who must turn over all their crop to the government. Pharmacies are expected to stock the packaged product by September.
" Now that we've heard about the Netherlands developing product that will be available for sale in the Netherlands, there's nothing to say that our researchers would not be interested in looking at that particular product," said Cindy Cripps-Prawak, head of Canada's medical marijuana program.
But Pieterson said there is no plan at present for Health Canada to buy any Dutch dope, whether for patients or for researchers.
Some in Canada's medical marijuana community are pressing Health Canada to adopt the Dutch model as a quick and effective solution to the court quagmire.
" It appears to be a fairly feasible and well regulated system, worthy of possible emulation here in Canada," Eric Nash, a medical marijuana grower in Duncan, B.C., wrote to Pieterson and others on April 3.
" It would alleviate many of the problems patients face, not to mention the current considerable financial burden of court costs and judicial resources being overly burdened."
Meanwhile, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon has said he hopes to introduce legislation before the Commons' summer recess to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana.

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