Medical Marijuana Comes to Guelph
Friday, September 12, 20084 Comments
Thecannon.ca was able to obtain an interview with MCCG founder Rade who spoke openly about the club and its operations.
Marijuana laws in Canada are in a rather grey area at the moment, particularly surrounding the use of the drug for medical purposes. There are many ways to access the substance, but the only 100% legal way is by applying for a license directly from Health Canada known as an MMAR (Medical Marijuana Access Regulations).
To obtain an MMAR, or Authorization to Possess Marijuana for Medical Purposes, you must get a physician to sign a series of forms and submit them to Health Canada along with 2 passport-sized photos. There are currently 2 categories of applicants. Category 1 applicants can have just about any physician sign their forms, whereas Category 2 applicants must have a specialist sign their forms.
Category 1 forms are for more severe and debilitating conditions such as AIDS, cancer or multiple sclerosis. Category 2 forms are for pretty much anything else, determined at the discretion of a specialist in the particular field. For example, a psychiatrist can sign the forms if you are applying based on depression or anxiety, or a physician specializing in pain can sign for applicants with chronic back pain or fibromyalgia. Once submitted, the processing time is roughly 8 – 10 weeks at which point you are mailed a government-issued license comparable to a health card of drivers license (sample pictured at left of founder of Toronto-based compassion club Therapeutics Involving Medicinal Efficacy - TIME ).
For those that do pass this rather lengthy process, three options exist for obtaining the medicine: growing for yourself, designating a third party to grow on your behalf, or purchasing directly from Health Canada. Of the roughly 3000 current MMAR holders in Canada many of them feel Health Canada's product is substandard in many ways. Not only do they only carry one of hundreds of strains, the THC content, taste, and overall quality is considered inadequate by most users compared to what compassion clubs offer. The government's problematic $5.75 million operation is located in Flin Flon Manitoba in a vacant mine, which has created toxicity concerns because the area is notorious for having high levels of heavy metals and other toxins resulting from mining, smelting and other manufacturing processes in the vicinity.
But compassion clubs are not technically legal. If you call Health Canada they will tell you that these clubs operate outside the law and that MMAR holders are not legally allowed to purchase from them unless you designate one of the compassion club owners as your personal grower and submit the appropriate forms.
This puts compassion clubs and anyone who works for them in a rather precarious position. They have to operate with the constant fear of being arrested and charged with trafficking of an illegal narcotic. They risk serious jail time for filling the void left by Health Canada's inability to provide high enough quality marijuana to meet the needs of many patients.
In addition, Health Canada tries to put arbitrary limits on the quantity of marijuana patients are allowed to receive. The MMAR forms themselves now recommend a dosage of “between 1 and 3 grams per day”. While this is generally enough for most patients, there are cases where patients need significantly more than this. The question of an appropriate dose is also grey. Health Canada is always complaining about a lack of solid scientific research on the drug so they began funding clinical trials. Lots of time, money and energy went into preparing for them and then at the last minute, Health Canada pulled the funding and the program was dropped.
Because the product is not standardized the way other prescription drugs are, the amount of THC – the active ingredient in marijuana – varies greatly from strain to strain, and the method of growing can also significantly influence it. Both patients and compassion clubs claim some strains treat certain conditions better than others - something that doesn't seem to register with Health Canada and their limited menu. Route of administration also makes a difference – some patients prefer to make cookies with the substance or drink it in tea, each of which requires significantly more quantity compared to smoking it. This is an example of how the suggested dosages proposed by Health Canada are questionable and clearly don't take into consideration the various needs of patients - some simply cannot smoke it, smoke causes a pungent smell not suited for a work environment, and there are obvious health implications associated with inhaling smoke of any kind.
If Health Canada receives an application with a larger-than-normal prescription of say 10 grams per day, they sometimes call the physician who signed the forms and try to talk them down without ever meeting with the patient or having them independently assessed. Physicians may be intimidated by this - particularly because we have a national health care system and they are provincially insured – and many are unwilling to take a stand against Health Canada over a single prescription. These interactions are a fundamental violation of the doctor-patient relationship that is paramount to an effective health care system.
This is one of many ways that compassion clubs provide a valuable alternative. In essence, they remove much of the red tape that patients meet when dealing with Health Canada. Not only will many of them respect the opinion of a properly trained, practicing physician regarding prescription quantity, but they also remove the hassle of trying to locate a specialist for Category 2 applicants. Furthermore, Rade from Guelph's MCCG says “many doctors have been pressured into not signing the Health Canada forms, for fear of audits, liability issues, or other reasons” so organizations such as his are becoming more and more popular. Compassion clubs in Toronto such as CALM - Cannabis As Living Medicine and TCC - Toronto Compassion Centre will accept prescriptions from specialists, general practitioners, and registered nurses, while Guelph's MCCG will even accept applications signed by a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine, or a Naturopath. Still, all compassion clubs reserve the right to refuse any applicant and make the decision on a case-by-case basis.
The trade off of less red tape in exchange for easier access is that the arrangement is quasi-legal. Rade stresses that “our applications allow new members to access our services and products, but it is NOT a license to possess” - you need an official MMAR from Health Canada to walk down the street smoking a joint and not have a police officer hassle you. If you get arrested carrying a bag of pot from a compassion club you can still theoretically face criminal charges. That being said, in most cases even if you are charged and it goes to court, most judges will dismiss the charges if your possession was clearly for personal use if you can show that you consulted a physician and purchased from a compassion club.
Many compassion clubs over the years have been raided by police, and taken to court. Thanks to a team of skillful lawyers combined with standard compassion club practices of only selling to people with a diagnosis from some form of medical practitioner, these cases are regularly thrown out of court because many judges agree they do provide a valuable service and know that Health Canada's supply is inadequate for many patients. Locally, Rade and his MCCG have not encountered any problems from Guelph police and Rade says that so far “everyone we have come across in our daily work has been very welcoming toward us.”
MCCG supplies primarily people within Guelph, but others do drive in from farther away because this setup is still closer than Toronto for many. While he is happy to supply people coming from Kitchener, Cambridge, and beyond, he feels "it would be much better if every city had its own medical cannabis dispensary."
While Rade was hesitant to discuss membership numbers for his club, Thecannon.ca can confirm that there is at least one University of Guelph student, faculty or employee that has become a member his organization. In Toronto, professors at both the University of Toronto and York University have MMAR licenses and regularly smoke on campus. U of T even provides their special prof with a room on campus for his medicating purposes, and now the York prof wants his institution to do the same.
For the Guelph students reading this and thinking "Sign me up!" - a few words of caution. Trying to obtain a license when you really don't have any medical condition has the potential to jeopardize the already shaky legal standing that genuine patients are using to obtain it. If you do use it medically already, or think it may help you and want to try this process, don't expect it to be necessarily easy. You really do have to have some form of medical need, and to increase your chances of being accepted into a compassion club – or licensed through Health Canada – you really should get someone as professional and specialized as possible to make the diagnosis. Simply calling a compassion club and asking for a reference to a physician won't get you far. Protecting the privacy of physicians willing to make this move is paramount, so there are no clubs handing the information out. That being said, reliable sources say there are several hundred physicians in the Toronto area who are signing people up.
Your best bet is to first build a genuine relationship with a physician over several visits. When you decide to pop the question, it's a good idea to bring documentation of medical studies showing the benefits of marijuana therapy for your specific condition, have your forms printed out and in-hand when you arrive (as well as photos for MMAR applications because the doctor has to sign the back of one), not pressure the doctor for unreasonably large prescriptions, and most-importantly, bring a copy of a liability waiver form from the Canadian Medical Protective Association. It should be noted that although there are only about 3000 federally licensed users at present, the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association estimates that approximately 2% of the Canadian population are medical users - half a million people. At the end of the day, many people are eligible for the full MMAR license, and there are many doctors willing to sign the forms. Just be genuine about your condition, and be willing to shop around for physicians. If you find one, don't put the his or her reputation at stake by posting the info publicly on an online forum like this one, and be thankful for the gift they have given you.
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