reviewing Dutch medical marijuana policy
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
The e-mail and related material was obtained under the Access to Information
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.
2003 Bell Globemedia Inc.