Canada: Justice Minister Calls For National Debate On Medical Marijuana

Newshawk: "Kelly T. Conlon" (conlonkt@mcmail.CIS.McMaster.CA) Source: Ottawa Citizen Contact: Pubdate: 21 Nov. 1997 Author: Stephen Bindman and Jim Bronskill, The Ottawa Citizen


Canada's justice minister thinks it's time for a national debate on whether to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.

"I think that this is an issue that is gaining some momentum within Canadian society. Therefore, I don't think we as Canadians should be afraid to discuss the issue," Justice Minister Anne McLellan said in an interview.

Though careful not to express an opinion on decriminalization, she added: "I think it's an issue that is worthy of study and I think we're kind of kidding ourselves if we think the pressure to look at this issue will go away. I think in fact it will probably grow."

Ms. McLellan's comments come as the RCMP in Ottawa investigates a network of growers, patients and doctors that provides free or discount marijuana to AIDS and cancer patients.

A group of doctors is planning to meet in Ottawa next week to come up with a strategy on how to provide the drug to seriously ill patients.

And Reform MP Jim Hart has introduced a motion in the Commons to debate the decriminalization of marijuana "for health purposes, explicitly for the purpose of providing pain relief for the terminally ill."

Ms. McLellan, whose department is responsible for prosecutions under Canada's drug laws, said the medical profession -- and health ministers -- should lead the debate because it is essentially a health issue.

"It seems to me if you were going to make a case for the medicinal use of certain drugs, you can only make that case on the basis of health-related and scientific data, which means you've got to have the medical community, the nursing community, the research community and the patient community involved.

"It's probably health-care professionals, patients and others in that area who are best placed to help others of us understand the dimensions of the debate and think about how, if at all, the tools we have might help provide a solution to what is obviously a difficult social problem."

Ms. McLellan said she has discussed the issue with Health Minister Allan Rock and officials from their two departments will discuss "where potentially we should go."

Mr. Rock was unavailable for comment, but two doctors in the Liberal caucus endorsed Ms. McLellan's call for a debate.

Secretary of State for Multiculturalism Hedy Fry said doctors can now legally prescribe THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in pill form.

"If it is shown very clearly that THC is effective as a therapeutic drug in treating terminally ill patients' nausea, why are we looking at restricting it to only one mode of ingestion, the synthetic pill? We don't do that with any other drug," said the minister, a Vancouver doctor.

"If it's useful why not use it in the other forms that we can use it, the only other form we know of being the smokable variety? I think it's worth looking at."

Carolyn Bennett, a Liberal MP and Toronto doctor, said she she has seen multiple sclerosis patients get relief from spasms using marijuana.

"When things work for people, they use it, and I feel it's a shame that if something actually makes people feel better that you're asking them to do something illegal," Dr. Bennett said in an interview.

"I favour that there should be a discussion and obviously I think I would push that we should be helping these people achieve it in a legal manner."

If the law is ever changed, Ms. McLellan said the use of drugs would obviously be a matter between patients and their doctors.

"A law can't decide whether you are sufficiently ill and suffering and in pain that the medicinal use of marijuana is something that is medically necessary. It does seem to me those are the kinds of decisions that we leave to doctors and patients once you make a policy decision that medicinal use of certain heretofore prohibited substances is acceptable."

As to whether she favors a change in the laws, Ms. McLellan replied: "My personal views don't matter.

"It's not one of those range of issues where I think a legislature, be it federal or provincial, has a magic answer. I think in fact it is something that implicates moral and ethical dimensions here and it's something that Canadians need to talk about and I think it's healthy that they're starting to."

She said the government "shouldn't presume we have the answer" but can help facilitate, along with the provinces and medical community, a dialogue.

The justice minister did concede that until the laws are changed, those who use marijuana for medicinal purposes may still face criminal charges.

An Angus Reid poll of 1,515 Canadians conducted in the last week of October found 83 per cent of respondents supported the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Advocates of the medical use of marijuana contend it promotes appetite and suppresses nausea -- making it a potential lifesaver for patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer or battling the wasting syndrome caused by AIDS.

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