Feds eliminating production of marijuana in homes
There was a time Jamy McKenzie's health was so frail, he was confined to a wheelchair.
The 27-year-old Sudbury man suffers from a number of different medical conditions, including metabolic myopathy, which gives him painful muscle spasms.
He also has cystic fibrosis, which caused him to develop cirrhosis of the liver so severe he received a liver transplant Feb. 14 of last year.
McKenzie is also allergic to barbiturates, leading him to seek pain relief alternatives. He said the use of marijuana has allowed him to control his pain and lead as normal a life as possible.
In 2004, he received a licence from the federal government to use marijuana for medical purposes. Because it was so expensive for him to buy the drug, he started cultivating his own marijuana plants, something he said he loved doing.
“I couldn't do what I do now, I wouldn't be where I am today if I wasn't able to cultivate my own,” he said.
McKenzie said takes in the majority of his daily marijuana dose in through baked goods or the juice of marijuana leaves, although he does also smoke some of it.
Marijuana juice doesn't have the psychoactive properties of other methods of using the drug, he said.
But McKenzie's ability to use what he calls his “medicine” will likely soon be hampered by new rules surrounding the use of medical marijuana announced last month by Health Canada.
The government said it is eliminating the production of marijuana in homes. It also said it will no longer produce and distribute marijuana for medical purposes, opening up the market to companies which meet strict security requirements.
The current Marijuana Medical Access Program costs Canadian taxpayers millions of dollars each year, according to a Dec. 16 press release from the federal government.
In the past decade, the program has grown exponentially, from less than 500 authorized persons in 2002 to more than 26,000 today.
The $5 per gram Health Canada charges to program participants who choose to purchase from the government is heavily subsidized, the press release said.
“Current medical marijuana regulations have left the system open to abuse,” Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said.
“We have hear real concerns from law enforcement, fire officials, and municipalities about how people are hiding behind these rules to conduct illegal activity, and putting health and safety of Canadians at risk. These changes will make it far more difficult for people to game the system.”
The new regulations being brought in also aim to treat marijuana as much as possible like any other narcotic for medical purposes, the government press release said.
Health-care practitioners will be able to sign a medical document similar to a prescription, and then patients can purchase the appropriate amount from an authorized vendor.
Currently, physicians fill in a form for patients who would benefit from medical marijuana, but the licensing is done by Health Canada.
According to the government, the new system would “cut red tape” for individuals to ensure they have access to marijuana for medical purposes.
But the president of the Canadian Medical Association has spoken out against this system.
Dr. Anna Reid said it's unreasonable to expect physicians to prescribe a substance which hasn't been through vigorous clinical testing, even if there's anecdotal evidence it helps some patients control their symptoms.
“The problem is that any other prescription drug that we prescribe has gone through clinical trials before it actually gets to being released onto the market,” she said.
“Those sorts of things have not been done with the medical marijuana, yet we're being asked to prescribe it as if it's a drug that has gone through a very strict regulatory process.”
Besides, there are dangers associated with marijuana, Reid said. As an emergency room physician, she said she's seen teens have their “first psychotic break” after smoking marijuana and end up in a psychiatric ward.
Then there's the fact that marijuana seems to be the most effective when it's smoked, Reid said.
I couldn't do what I do now, I wouldn't be where I am today if I wasn't able to cultivate my own.
medical marijuana user
“The No. 1 concern from long-term use of marijuana for chronic pain patients is the fact that it's known to be a carcinogen,” she said.
Physicians wouldn't be expected to write prescriptions for cigarettes, but they are being asked to write prescriptions for patients to smoke joints, Reid said.
Greater Sudbury Police Chief Frank Elsner said he's supportive of the changes proposed by the federal government, as the medical marijuana system has caused many law enforcement issues.
“We're just really happy this is something that's finally being addressed,” he said.
While he stops short of saying the issue has been a nightmare for his police service, he said the home production of medical marijuana has “certainly been problematic.”
Very often, those consuming or growing marijuana say they have a medical marijuana licence, but when police investigate, they actually don't have a licence, he said.
Even when they do, there have been instances where someone with a medical marijuana licence is growing the plant not only for their own purposes, but to sell the product illegally.
There's also an ongoing issue “where someone is growing medical marijuana in large quantities within a very close, confined neighbourhood,” Elsner said.
“The neighbours are complaining that when they're smoking it, it's coming in their homes,” he said. “They're saying 'Is there nothing we can do? We don't want to be subject to this.' I don't blame them.”
Then there's the risk to those growing medical marijuana, Elsner said.
“We have had a theft here in the city of plants,” he said. “Now we have a drug that is in our community that shouldn't be.”
McKenzie said the new rules being proposed by the federal government will mean marijuana would cost him a small fortune every day — a price he couldn't possibly afford on his Ontario Disability Support Program pension.
He said he can produce marijuana at home for about a fifth of the $5-per-gram cost touted by Health Canada.
McKenzie said while in theory doctors being able to prescribe marijuana just like any other drug would be a good thing, it won't help if they refuse to do so.
In terms of Reid's comments about marijuana's benefits being unproven, he said there are studies showing its medical benefits from countries such as Israel.
McKenzie said he'd also love to see more research done, however, and would even be willing to sign up to be a research subject.
“If it was looked into and there were studies done, it would show that there's never been a death associated with cannabis.”
When it comes to Elsner's concerns about medical marijuana users selling their product illegally, McKenzie said this isn't really an issue.
“If we all sold all of our license, it would not even account for 1/1000th of the amount of cannabis sold on the street every day.”
He also said that if a grow-op is properly wired and ventilated, there's no risk of electrical hazards or mould.
But there are definitely dangers to growing marijuana, McKenzie said.
Last year, he was charged with possession of marijuana after smoking a joint on court property while there supporting someone else.
While the charges were eventually dropped, McKenzie's name and the fact that he lived in St. Charles at the time were publicized in the media.
This led to him being robbed of his marijuana plants, which he said was scary, as he has a wife and a young daughter.
“My daughter is my first concern,” McKenzie said. “When something like that happens, I feel violated.”
The family was forced to move elsewhere in the city, and is in the process of setting up another grow op at an undisclosed location separate from their home.
For now, McKenzie is using marijuana left over from when he grew it or is bartering for the product with other medical marijuana users in exchange for advice on how to best grow their plants.
But if everyone were allowed to grow marijuana, McKenzie said he would never have been at risk of being robbed.
“Prohibition is the only reason I'm being robbed,” he said. “The only reason.”