Isaac K. Oommen: Health Canada must include compassion clubs in medical marijuana program

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      On September 7, Health Canada conducted a roundtable with medical cannabis dispensaries, otherwise known as compassion clubs, from around B.C. regarding its Medical Marihuana Access Program (MMAP). Although it was not the first time Health Canada had consulted about the program, it stated this time that its intent was to remove itself from supplying medical cannabis.

      Health Canada needs to accept and license medical cannabis dispensaries such as the B.C. Compassion Club Society (BCCCS), which was represented along with 16 other such organizations at the consultations. The BCCCS is the oldest such entity in Canada and has been operating for over 14 years with the core principle of compassion in providing medicine to those in need—not cannabis alone but holistic health in the form of a full-service wellness centre that has everything from herbal medicine to acupuncture (these services are subsidized through cannabis sales).

      Health Canada’s own Medical Marihuana Access Regulations (MMAR) program, which is now the MMAP, was in response to the overwhelming need for medical cannabis for symptomatic relief and condition management by a diverse section of patients. The program was wrought with flaws from the start. The MMAR supplied just one strain of cannabis that was not able to address all the symptoms from various conditions affecting patients all across Canada. Coupled with a long wait-time for access as well as a complicated 32-page form, the program quickly gained many complaints. Court decisions have continuously challenged the MMAR, and in instances such as the Mernagh case, have even found the program to be unconstitutional. For these and other reasons, patients overwhelmingly continued to choose compassion clubs as their medical cannabis providers.

      Meanwhile a number of persons licensed by Health Canada to grow cannabis either for personal use or on behalf of other patients were busted or were the victims of robbery, leading several municipalities to question the effectiveness of the MMAR program.

      Health Canada’s response, included in the proposed changes, is to phase out personal production licenses rather than provide regulation. This will result in persons suffering from the impacts of significant health complications losing one of the only legal options allowing them affordable access to their medicine.

      The BCCCS in comparison has a compassionate cultivator program where suppliers grow high-quality cannabis that they offer for below-market prices in order to be able to provide for patients with low incomes. We provide around 60 different strains of cannabis, as well as a variety of non-smoking options such as baked goods, butters, and tinctures.

      While officially medical cannabis dispensaries have been relegated to a “legal grey zone”, over the past 14 years compassion clubs have actually become the experts in the field, with far more patients loyal to and satisfied with our service than Health Canada’s program. After a decade-and-half of successful operation, dispensaries have reached a new maturity, reflected in past year by the establishment of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD) to ensure standards of operation across the country through a stringent certification process, similar to other accrediting health care associations. CAMCD was represented at the Quebec and Vancouver consultations, and will also attend the Ontario meeting.

      Reputable medical cannabis dispensaries are uniquely qualified to advise Health Canada on creating regulations that will actually meet patient needs, as well as answer safety concerns from stakeholders such as the police, fire chiefs, and municipalities. The BCCCS and other leading compassion clubs are advocating for a patient-centred nonprofit model operated by staff that have more than a decade of expertise in the industry.

      Over 14 years of successful operations and member support points to a logical resolution to the medical marijuana dilemma: Health Canada needs to catch up, rather than reinvent another flawed wheel. The legalization of compassion clubs will go a long way to addressing concerns with the Health Canada program through providing face-to-face education, a safe and supportive environment, diversity of strains, nonsmoking options, as well as an efficient and secure application process.

      Isaac K. Oommen is the communications coordinator for the B.C. Compassion Club Society.




      Sep 16, 2011 at 9:56pm

      A better solution would be to simply allow private licensed producers to grow a quality product.

      These clubs are largely unregulated, with unknown revenues and finances. They are not as tightly controlled as your average drug store, and questions have been asked about exactly where the money goes, with annual gross turnover in the millions.

      I don't have much confidence in such groups, having personally witnessed a few questionable transactions.

      We need to get the stuff into cannabis control stores, like liquor and tobacco. Cut out the unprofessional suppliers. Reduce the prices so that the material is more in line with quality organic herbs like oregano and basil.

      If the government would finally establish a sales network like for other controlled substances, I don't think as many people would have as much default "confidence" these so-called professionals enjoy today. Quality and price controls would be very welcome, considering the questionable nature of the game today. Full legality and responsible finances can't hurt anything, compared to the unregulated mess currently in existence. Any pharmacist would be a better professional than any of the self-styled experts afflicting the poor and sick right now.

      I have a lot of personal experience in what happens behind the scenes at these clubs, and it's not very impressive. The material is not organic, no matter what they say, and the plant matter is typically loaded with minerals upon harvest, leading to a choking and bitter taste, with a black ash.

      Some outfits even allow their own members to make a bit of pocket change by selling their own inferior product. This should stop for a verifiable regime of quality control.

      No wonder the coppers are apparently surveilling many of the current operators. I don't blame them, and in fact thank them.

      Russell Barth

      Sep 17, 2011 at 6:47am

      the meetings with HC over the past few weeks have been going very badly as HC is refusing to listen to our demands. Expect a major lawsuit in the coming weeks.

      Lorraine Hubbs

      Sep 17, 2011 at 9:20am

      Well said! We must get through to Health Canada.

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      Sep 17, 2011 at 10:00am

      The sooner the better. It would be nice to go to the C.C. I'm with for mediCALMarijuana in Toronto without looking over my shoulder, the edginess of everything, the paranoia that is included in the current laws Let the C.C's approve the memberships and issue the cards - then DIGNITY OF THE HUMAN CONDITION can prevail.

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      Sep 17, 2011 at 11:34am

      Don't be too surprised at the reluctance of Health Canada to accede to your "demands". I'm reasonably certain that HC has access to law enforcement intelligence, regarding the growers and sellers of the drug hiding behind the cloak of service to the disabled. My own view would be that HC is correct in using a very conservative approach, and that much needs to be done with verifiable controls. OK, let's build up some health stats from the guinea-pig-disableds, who would likely use the stuff no matter where they got it, and then establish controlled lines of access. Eventually, as quality supply becomes common, it could even be legalized for average people like tobacco and alcohol, perhaps with personal production like for small amounts of home-made wine and a couple of tobacco plants in the garden. However, legal weed is likely to remain costly; it's been estimated that cannabis taxes could make a huge dent in our national debt within a decade. It should be taxed, assuming a fair tax regime for a relatively harmless substance.

      There may indeed be a story or two here, for an investigative reporter from the GS. It may take a little while, but there would be many medical users who'd come out of the shadows in order to share their own personal experience with the "compassionate" groups operating now. Maybe it's the management of those groups who require a little more compassion, as they seem challenged by mere fiscal responsibility. I've personally witnessed several very questionable transactions, and I know there are more people who currently keep their own mouths shut regarding certain abuses at some of these groups. And if a polite but persistent reporter asked the same questions about total annual net revenues, and where those literal millions have gone, we may get a few more answers which have been entirely unforthcoming from the typical operation so far. They have a habit of banning members for awkward questions; there would be no such power over an independent reporter. Comparisons may be made between filed annual society reports and the annual incomes of the managers and all staff, for example, as well as total material in and total material out.

      They need more control. Much more.

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      Sep 18, 2011 at 12:45pm

      Anon_419.999: You are missing the fundamental reality of this situation. The government, particularly our current one, has no interest in having cannabis in anyone's hands, whether the user is medical or recreational. In every single case, the governement (via Health Canada) has been literally forced to act by court decisions. The current changes are not being done to actually improve the situation; rather, the government has been forced into several corners (with more looming) and so they are attempting an overhaul of an intentionally flawed system while simultaneously taking away the only part of the system that is even partially working properly: the right for patients to grow from themselves (or have another grow for them).

      Your comment that it would be ideal to have cannabis regulated and distributed widely (like alcohol) is only an option that would come from full legalization. Compassion Clubs only exist because the government refuses to implement a medical cannabis system that is actually designed to treat sick people with compassion. In the government's eyes, medical users are still using an illegal, demonic drug; it doesn't matter if it helps them eat, or sleep, or removes pain. Given the option, Harper would be simply cancelling the MMAR altogether.

      Your comments are in good spirit but you fail to understand the political history and current reality of the situation. Those who know and work closely on a daily basis with community members whose lives are vastly improved because of access to safe, reliable, dignified cannabis know that the government does not share their goals of helping those in need.


      Sep 18, 2011 at 5:42pm

      Thank you, W; I clicked the "agree" button for your sober and intelligent remarks. Earlier, I would have put things a bit more harshly.

      Yes, the clubs are the lesser of the evils. But let's give out government a chance, and more time. Full legalization and public government outlets would be the lessest of the evils yet, if I may stretch the language a bit.

      Let's keep working for a more fun Canada, instead of battling against perhaps outdated values. Eventually they'll fall, all by themselves, and no one will have broken a fingernail.

      You've given me a bit to think about, within the current context. I too need a bit more patience. And I'd love to see an investigative journalism piece on this matter by the GS, maybe with a writer who gets a membership and attends an annual meeting or two. That might actually be interesting and funny.


      Sep 19, 2011 at 5:03pm

      Anon: thanks for your comments as well.

      There are two large reasons why those on the front lines do not agree we should give the government more time: the past and the present. The history of the MMAR is a travesty of humanity wherein many, many sick people have at best been treated with no compassion including multiple month waits to receive permission to obtain their needed medicine, and at worst those people have been criminalized for, among other things, daring to use their medicine while waiting the excessive periods it takes the government to issue a license. As a quick example/reality test: how would you feel if you needed a prescription for Tylenol 3 for your migraines as T3 is the only thing you've found to help you, and after going through many hurdles to get the proper paperwork in order you then had to wait 2-6 months to receive the prescription for your medicine?

      If we had a government that was proposing to rectify these travesties and recognize cannabis as a viable and valuable medicine for many of its citizens, then I'd be all for giving them more time. What he have though is the opposite: Harper and his zealouts continuing the trend of ignoring science and statistics, not consulting or caring about those who are sick and using this medicine, and now, for the rest of us citizens, even ignoring pleas from the law society that we are going in the exact wrong direction.

      Make no mistake, our government wants the same errors that the US implemented decades ago and is now striving hard to undo, and also always remember that Health Canada is not trying to create a system that provides medical cannabis to those who use and need it. The future will not come through Conservative kindness and a sudden realization that caring for people is important; they will continue to ignore what is while those on the front lines will on a daily basis continue to assist people to walk, to sleep, to recover from injury, and to smile.

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      MMAR Patient

      Apr 22, 2013 at 6:28pm

      To all Doctors & Politicians go to then click on Cannabis Videos-Updated Daily, Here you find information videos on everything from Dispensaries and how they work to Accredited Doctors explaining the usages, effects, side effects of Cannabis. Look further into this site and you will find studies, research modals and findings. Or if you choose just search Google and you will find all the necessary information you will need including Prescriptions and Dosages per day. Please Do Not say there is not enough Research or Studies for you or your patients to make a honest responsible choice for Cannabis as a medical treatment if the prognosis is warranted, the critically ill and chronic pain suffers don’t have 15 years for Cannabis to be “Accepted “ by the Medical Profession, the Government and Society.


      Jul 22, 2013 at 7:07am

      May I put the correct slant:
      The Illegal Growers are supplying me indirectly since I am a MMAR patient and I am serviced by a Compassion Club which has been held in a gray area for 12 years, Health Canada Has and still is mismanaging a critical medication, People that are on this program are ill, since the 1 strain that Health Canada has (a Sativa) good for Depression not so good for chronic pain, patients are forced to get the right medication from underground sources. The Harper Government wants Cannabis crushed down and reproduced by synthetics, and mass produced in a blue pill totally destroying a plant that has been a main source of medicine for 3000 years.

      the foundation of the constitutional law that says that Cannabis for medical purposes should not have barriers of access, and this can only be achieved by licensing all the existing Compassion Clubs and there suppliers because they are the ones that are all ready growing and distributing 70% of patients with quality Cannabis and for us the patients losing that access will be a infringement on our rights to access and posses our medicine.

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