Health Canada stirs the pot over medical marijuana regulations

A proposal by Health Canada to tighten the rules for access to medical marijuana has sparked a debate about who should be allowed to grow it and the value of the program.

Health Canada says 28,000 Canadians hold licences for the legal possession of medical marijuana.

“It’s going to turn tens of thousands of growers into criminals when they were legal before, it’s going to drive the cost up like crazy, and it’s going to leave a lot of people with no medicine, period,” says marijuana activist Russell Barth.

Barth has been using marijuana since 2002 to treat fibromyalgia and post-traumatic stress disorder. He holds a medical permit and consumes eight to 10 grams of the drug a day in food and through inhalation. Under the current program, individuals with severe medical conditions can obtain a licence from Health Canada to legally possess marijuana. With a permit, patients can get the drug directly from Health Canada, a designated grower, or can grow it themselves.

Citing health, safety, and system abuse, the federal government now wants this to stop.

Health Canada announced in December that, under the proposed new regulations, it would no longer produce or supply marijuana. In addition, legal home grow operations and designated growers would be phased out and made illegal by 2014, forcing legal users to get the drug from licenced producers.

Barth, who currently gets his marijuana from a designated grower, is concerned that if the changes happen, it won’t be as easy to get the drug because there will be fewer distributors and it will be more expensive.

Health Canada estimates the price of the drug will rise from $1.80 to $8.80 under the proposed program.

“It’s a very mean-spirited and deliberately harmful kind of policy that they’re implementing,’ Barth says. “A lot of people are just going to grow and say forget it, man.”

Current system is open to abuse, says Health Canada

“If an individual were to produce more than what the licence permits, that’s where we recognize there is opportunity for abuse and diversion of the product into the black market,” says Health Canada spokesperson Stephane Shank.

‘You suspect some people might be growing more than they’re supposed to. That’s like saying we have to get rid of everybody’s cars because some people may be speeding. ‘

In an email to Capital News Online, spokesperson Laurence Trottier said the RCMP is “concerned about any marijuana grow operations…and supports reducing the negative harms associated with growing marijuana in residential homes.”

The RCMP is unaware of the number of legal grow operations that have violated permit regulations, says Trottier.

Barth argues the government’s rationale for the proposed changes is unfair.

“You suspect some people might be growing more than they’re supposed to. That’s like saying we have to get rid of everybody’s cars because some people may be speeding,” he says.

Proposed changes to reduce risk of fires and danger to community

The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs supports the proposed restrictions on growers.The changes would allow fire officials to conduct regular inspections of legal grow operations to ensure they are following proper protocols, says the association’s president Stephen Gamble.

“We generally locate these grow operations whether they are legal or illegal, through fires, because something’s gone awry,” he says.

Under the current program, patients can get the drug from Health Canada, a designated grower or grow it themselves.

The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs claims residences containing grow operations are 24 times more likely to catch fire than the average home. However, he admits they do not know how many fires have specifically been caused by legal grow operations.

Firefighters have, in the past, responded to fires at legal and illegal operations where changes to the building’s structure and electrical systems do not follow code, which increases fire hazards and is an added danger to responders on scene, says Gamble.

“[Growers] cut holes in the floors, walls, and roofs so when there is a fire it reacts quite differently than an average home,” he says adding, such changes are sometimes made by growers in both legal and illegal operations to increase ventilation and crop production.

Health Canada is currently reviewing public comments on the proposals, and is planning to phase in changes to the existing regulations beginning this spring. The government hopes to implement all changes by March 2014.

Currently, more than 28,000 Canadians hold a license to possess medical marijuana and more than 18,000 grow their own drug.

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