Canadians suffering from terminal illnesses and chronic conditions such as arthritis can legally grow and smoke marijuana, or designate someone else to grow it for them, under regulations that take effect today.
The new rules are part of the first system in the world that includes a government-approved and paid-for supply of marijuana, now being grown in a former mine in northern Manitoba.
The rules will expand the number of people beyond the 292 in the country currently exempted from federal drug laws that make it a criminal offense to grow and use marijuana.
While some in Canada complain the new regulations create bureaucratic hurdles and put doctors in the unsettling role of prescribing something they know little about, the Canadian system looks wonderful to U.S. medical marijuana advocates battling a zero-tolerance attitude.
"We're kind of envious of Canadians having the luxury of complaining about the minutiae of the program," said Chuck Thomas of the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project. "It seems like a reasonable system."
Eight U.S. states have taken some kind of step toward permitting the medicinal use of marijuana: California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada and Colorado. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled earlier this year that there is no exception in federal law for people to use marijuana, so even people with state medical-exemptions could face arrest if they do.
North of the border in the country that is the biggest U.S. trade partner, attitudes are different. Justice Minister Anne McLellan said the issue of decriminalizing marijuana should be studied, and the Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to consider a challenge against the constitutionality of criminal marijuana laws.
More Than 500 Applications Pending
The new health regulations were drawn up after a court ruling last year that gave the government until July 31 to create a way for people requiring marijuana for medicinal purposes to legally obtain it.
The new rules permit drug possession for the terminally ill with a prognosis of death within one year; those with symptoms associated with specific serious medical conditions; and those with other medical conditions who have statements from two doctors saying conventional treatments have not worked. Eligible patients include those with severe arthritis, cancer, HIV/AIDS and multiple sclerosis.
More than 500 new applications are pending, and more are expected, according to the federal health ministry.
The Canadian Medical Association, which represents tens of thousands of doctors, opposes the new regulations because they make physicians responsible for prescribing a substance that lacks significant clinical research on its effects. Without the cooperation of doctors, patients cannot get medical marijuana exemptions.
Under the regulations, people can grow and possess marijuana for medical needs, or name someone to grow it for them, including the government.
In Flin Flon, Manitoba, a mining town hundreds of miles north of the U.S. border, Prairie Plant Systems is growing marijuana in a former copper mine under a government contract worth more than $3.5 million.
It expects the first harvest this fall of marijuana that will be supplied by the government to eligible patients and used for research on therapeutic effects. Company head Brent Zettl uses the same techniques that were used to grow berries and roses in the tapped-out mine beneath Trout Lake.
In town, a novelty store has sold 6,000 T-shirts bearing a new slogan for Flin Flon — Marijuana Growing Capital of Canada.