Friday, November 08, 2013

Time to legalize cannabis use in Canada

Here's this weekend's column in the Kingston Whig-Standard.

The Harper government’s general approach to policy seems to be: ensure that it isn’t based on scientific evidence. Since our great leader’s rise to power scores of government scientists have variously been muzzled or fired. Nothing is surely worse than evidence coming in the way of implementing sacred-cow conservative policies!

I had no idea that medical cannabis was high on our dear leader’s agenda, but it turns out that it is. Let me be clear about my take on cannabis. It’s as close to a no brainer as it gets that adult access to it ought to be legal. While there are health consequences if you inhale it, they are nowhere as bad as those caused by alcohol, a drug much more likely to lead to dependency. No wonder the Editor of the top medical journal The Lancet opined, ‘cannabis per se is not a hazard to society but driving it further underground may well be.’ Unlike with alcohol, you can’t overdose on cannabis. Perhaps that’s why our government is selling alcohol directly to us, while it forces us to head to illegal dealers to access a comparably much safer drug. We have discovered recently that one of Mr. Harper’s best mates, Toronto mayor Rob Ford, tends to get so hammered from his use of alcohol that he even forgets that he’s smoking crack on the odd occasion. Trust me, there is nobody who is that severely affected from smoking a joint at the weekend.  Interestingly, Mr Ford insists that he doesn’t have a drug problem, most likely because he doesn’t conceive of alcohol as a drug. It’s here where our classification system has it all backward. Surely whether an addictive substance is a drug or not cannot be a question of its legal status. Honesty demands that we acknowledge also that the prohibition of drugs of any kind has been an utter failure.  Saying this, I’m not the odd guy out. The view that the war on drugs has been an abysmal failure is shared by 68% of Canadians, according to a 2012 representative survey. I am not a great fan of cannabis myself. I tried it once or twice – who hasn’t? – and truly I don’t know what the fuss is all about. Unlike Mr Ford I can’t get my head around inhaling smoke. I cough immediately like there is no tomorrow. From what I gather, that kind of defeats the purpose.

It turns out that there is another reason to legalize adult access to cannabis. That reason came to the fore this week. There are tens of thousands of Canadians who use medical cannabis for various ailments ranging from glaucoma to pain management to asthma – in case you want to know: for the latter it isn’t inhaled but drunk as tea. There is quite a bit of clinical evidence to support the claim by medical cannabis users that cannabis has beneficial effects. Still, cannabis isn’t actually an approved medication for most or possibly all of these and other conditions. So, here’s the bizarre system Mr Harper is foisting upon these patients. Obviously his major issue is with cannabis itself, that damn hippie drug. He can’t stand it, or, more likely, his conservative base can’t stand it. So his health minister developed a nefarious scheme to remove access to cannabis effectively from legitimate medical users.

Currently registered medical users are able to access cannabis legally, even grow it legally for their own purposes, provided they meet certain clinical conditions, and provided a doctor certifies that they meet these conditions. Yes, you heard correctly, our current system asks doctors to write quasi scripts for cannabis. That’s a bit odd, because cannabis is not actually an approved drug to treat any of the conditions currently on Health Canada’s list of approved clinical conditions. Thank our legal system for this mess. Many doctors are rightly annoyed about being dragged into this medical cannabis business at all. Some doctors tried and quickly discovered that their rooms were overrun by healthy folks who really just wanted to get legal access to cannabis. Their neighbors weren’t terribly excited about their doctors’ new ‘patients’ either. In any case, while the current system wasn’t perfect, it permitted legitimate access to bona fide medical cannabis users. Those who chose not to grow their own supply could buy it from a government facility. Within the overall unjust context of the ongoing criminalization of adult access to cannabis, this system worked, up to a point.

Mr Harper’s health minister cooked up a scheme to subvert the current status quo. Combine that with Harper’s love for private entrepreneurship and voila you get the new system, coming your way in 2014. Clearly the Harper government’s main concern was to limit medical cannabis users’ access. This is achieved by first eliminating their current ability to grow their own affordable supply in a controlled manner. Then remove the government production facility and open the field to cannabis entrepreneurs. Give licenses to these medical cannabis entrepreneurs and permit them to charge the living hell out of current medical cannabis users. Many patients have done their budgets already and discovered that their annual bills will go up from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. There is, of course, that minor constitutional issue of equal access. Harper has created a system whereby only the wealthiest of medical cannabis users will be able to afford continuing access, but nobody else. One company, CanniMed is currently pricing medical cannabis at between $9 and $12 per gram. Compare that to just cents per gram for homegrown cannabis. Many medical cannabis users will almost certainly resort to buying cannabis illegally on the street. No surprise the CBC’s The National managed to find a masked illegal cannabis dealer celebrating the new legislation and the financial windfall it means for his business. That’s how our federal government effectively criminalizes medical users of cannabis while permitting at the same time clever business people to make a fortune on the backs of desperate patients.  Well played Mr Harper, no doubt the victims of your legislative efforts will see you in court.

On the good news front, on federal level both the NDP as well as the Liberal Party support the decriminalization and legalization of cannabis use respectively. They are in line with the close to 60% of Canadians supportive of legal, controlled adult access to cannabis. However, don’t hold your breath hoping for government support on that front. Being out of touch with the majority of Canadians on important matters of public policy is a hallmark of this government. To be fair to Mr Harper, he doesn’t have to care. After all, he was elected to an absolute majority government on the basis of just a 39.62% share of the popular vote, courtesy of our first-past-the-post way of doing democracy. 

Udo Schuklenk holds the Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics and Public Policy, he tweets @schuklenk


  1. Hi Professor,

    I checked your article out after you mentioned it in the Phil 820 and came across your blog. You raise some good points, but to be honest, I think you are far too harsh on the new Cannabis policies. My concerns with your position:
    1) Why Should my Tax Dollars Fund an Unapproved Drug? The previous government facility should be closed, for the simple fact that its funding through taxes was illegitimate. To me, having people subsidize an unapproved drug is akin to subsidizing untested homeopathic medicine. You may respond that there is scientific evidence to support Cannabis as a medicinal drug, but the evidence is not conclusive. What we need is research, government funded or otherwise, and Health Canada to give its formal stamp of approval to Cannabis as medicinal or not. If Health Canada approved the drug, then I have no problem with my taxes being used to subsidize Cannabis (perhaps completely) via Medicare, but if it does not, then why were we paying for unverified pseudo-medicine?
    2) Can Anyone Really Grow Pot? As things stand, anyone who has a license to need pot can grow it. However, that is too inclusive. A recent article in Metro cited that apparently 1 in 22 fires in Ottawa were caused by growing Marijuana. Whether people can safely grow and process Cannabis is a concern. For my part, I don’t think only private corporations should be able to grow Weed, but perhaps a licensing mechanism where only people educated on how to safely grow the drug can do it? Just because you need to make Marijuana, does not mean you safely can. But also just cause you won't sell it, does not mean you should not be able to.
    3) Could Privatization be a Good Thing? Who gets to sell the drugs will be interesting to see. There is a real worry that only mega-corporations will get to do it, but if Ottawa allows small businesses to get into the action (e.g. in the States), then this opens the door for more business ownership and possibly lower prices via competition. Prices may well be $9 to $12 to start when only a few businesses have a share of the market, but I would predict a drop once (or if) more competition- both large and small-scale- is allowed to enter the market. If in fact Cannabis only costs a few cents to produce, so costs could go quite low.
    So my general take on the whole issue: Canada’s treatment of Cannabis is convoluted, and things need to change. First and foremost, Health Canada needs to fund and analyze research into its medical application, and either say it is medicine or not. This pseudo-medicine status Cannabis has now is just nonsense. But in the absence of research, some of the new policies are on the right track, even if they are far from perfect. Thanks.
    SR (I am the annoying one from class... you can probably figure it out :)

  2. Incredibly well written article. A few things I would say or add which you will likely agree with.
    1.Smoking is one of many ways to consume.... many of which are perfectly safe. ie vaporizing, medibles, infusions.
    2.In response to Docs claiming they had waiting rooms full of healthy patients who just wanted legal cannabis~ those same ppl could get a pill to help them sleep, to help them feel hungry, ease nausea, lower inflammation, ease depression. Yet believe Cannabis is safer. In my opinion, ALL use is medicinal. People ingest this plant because it makes them FEEL better.
    3.You mention the neighbors of new med mj patients being unhappy, I assume with the smell? Yet we all get to smell our neighbors' cigarette smoke in the tenement hallways, streets, and parks.... though tobacco kills >15 million of us yearly.

    Basically Prof ... the gig is up. If I can buy Tobacco and Alcohol though they are addictive, unhealthy, and dangerous .... then I should SURELY be allowed to buy or grow a Plant that has never killed anyone EVER.

    The Cannabis legalization movement of millions thanks you for your support and the time you spent researching. Cheers.

  3. Great Post ! I read your blog and you described about Medical Cannabis in Canada well informative. Good Work keep posting...


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