Regulating Marijuana Medicine in Canada: New Challenges and Prospects for Meaningful Reform

Andrew Hathaway discusses the challenges surrounding the regulation of medical marijuana.

__________________________________________

Earlier this summer Vancouver became the first city in Canada to regulate and license the sale of medical marijuana. The controversial bylaw will affect approximately 100 existing businesses, dozens of which are expected to be shuttered for failing to comply with the new regulatory framework. Under the new regulations, retailers of medical marijuana will be charged a license fee of $30,000 and shops will be prohibited from operating within 300 metres of community centres, schools, and other medical marijuana dispensaries. Nonprofit organizations, designated as compassion clubs, will pay a much reduced license fee of $1,000. But all licensed outlets will be fettered by restrictions against the sale of baked goods (e.g., pot cookies, brownies) and other edible concoctions that might appeal to children.

Predictably, the federal government has opposed the move to regulate the city’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry, which has long existed at the sufferance of police. In a strongly worded statement, Health Minister Rona Ambrose slammed the regulatory scheme for undermining the government’s position that marijuana is illegal and asserted the need for uniform enforcement of the law. Ambrose argued that the passing of the bylaw will facilitate increased marijuana use, addiction, and inevitably make the drug more readily available to children.

Equally predictably, proponents of the bylaw have defended it as being the most practical solution—designed precisely to protect children—in a context of expanding unregulated use. For others seeking formal recognition of the health benefits of the drug and to expand medical access to it, the onerous restrictions of the bylaw are excessive. Put otherwise, for advocates of more liberal drug policies, the measures adopted in Vancouver do not go far enough.

Drug_bottle_containing_cannabisDespite increasing recognition of the efficacy of medical marijuana for relieving symptoms of some chronic health conditions, its use remains contentious. The debate surrounding the regulation of medical marijuana sales is reminiscent of the ongoing controversy over harm reduction measures such as medically supervised injection. The controversy surrounding supervised injection in the case of InSite in Vancouver, for example, illustrates the obstacles to policy reform when scientific evidence is trumped by moralism. Research indicates that facilities like InSite reduce needle-sharing and deaths from overdose, while also improving public order and uptake of addiction treatment. Notwithstanding recent changes in priorities apparent in the federal government’s opposition to reform, harm reduction principles have served as the official goal of Canada’s drug strategy for nearly 30 years. Harm reduction recognizes that enforcement of the law is not only ineffective but often counterproductive. Reducing drug-related harm requires more innovative strategies that emphasize public health priorities, as opposed to punishment of people with drug problems.

However, despite the wealth of evidence supporting harm reduction initiatives like InSite, the Harper government’s position is, first, that these send the message that drug use is acceptable, which is inconsistent with the anti-drug values of Canadians and, second, that more research on the efficacy of supervised injection and other harm reduction strategies is still needed. Similarly in the case of medical marijuana, regulation of illicit drugs is threatening to governments committed to existing institutional arrangements in which users of those substances are considered criminals. Medical marijuana users are begrudgingly excused from the law prohibiting non-medical use of the drug. Calls for regulation of the industry beyond the narrow scope of what is permissible by federal jurisdiction represent a Trojan horse or wedge to legalization feared by those supportive of the ban on marijuana.

Medical marijuana also represents a threat to experts whose training and authority is derived from the assumption that science will decide what counts as evidence or proof. The use of marijuana as a medicine has been difficult to justify and meaningfully evaluate according to the standards of the medical profession. Its efficacy for patients suffering from chronic illness, for whom standard treatments are often frustrating and futile, requires an understanding of alternative philosophies—promoting personal autonomy, respect for lived experience, and a holistic view of illness, health, and healing—whose values go beyond those of conventional medical science.

The matter of providing legal access to marijuana—much like the question of its efficacy for patients—ought to be a question of what serves the patient best. But much like the controversy over harm reduction services, it has proven difficult to separate empirical questions posed by scientists from normative agendas.

Vancouver’s nascent effort to regulate the medical marijuana industry is a sign of progress in conferring its legitimacy. Yet the new bylaw further illustrates the difficulty in practice of protecting patients’ rights and choices in a climate of conflicting normative and practical concerns. This is an ethical dilemma that will need to be resolved in order for a ‘common sense’ solution to the problem to prevail.

__________________________________________

Andrew Hathaway is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Guelph.

2 comments

  1. Dave Campbell · · Reply

    Your article is quite impressive and also informative. Its true medical marijuana today has great value and why not, it is providing effective results for pain and also in many health issues.

  2. Advocates of “more liberal drug policies”, or more accurately “the agents of chaos” in this instance are _not_ to be conflated with those “seeking formal recognition of the health benefits of the drug and to expand medical access to it”. They’re not even on the same planet.

    The source of the authors confusion is a classic conflation of “Medical” from a reputable, regulated body, and the “back of the van”, “dark alley” sort that has no quality control. It’s a question of being devoid of standards or values and the kind of society we expect from it. So there are people who are trying to do things sensibly but they’re being uberized by the carnie side show. There’s no sense in having a regulated body forced to “compete” with the agents of chaos in parallel who are free of the burden of any responsibilities.

    The main correction for the article is that Vancouver did not “regulate medical marijuana” at all, because what they regulated was storefronts and illegal dispensaries that are just selling unregulated marijuana which is less reasonably considered “medical” if we’re to have any standards or values at all. The conversation has to evolve from what it was 20 years ago because things have changed and so at present they’re impediments towards progress and certainly offer none of their own to say the very least.

    We really need to figure out when use becomes abuse because it’s not all automagically medical and the agents of chaos who advocate its constant abuse are causing nothing but harm and destroying its powerful medical qualities. We generally have a seriously toxic Dr Jekyll Mr Hyde cannabis conundrum where prospective patients have no clue who they’re dealing with or even know how to tell with people always telling them whatever they want to hear.

    You sure as hell can’t credibly speak of the agents of chaos in terms of “harm reduction” that way. Harm reduction principles are also not at all what the government has traditionally operated by. In marketing perhaps but never in effect. InSite actually has evidence and that’s a great point, but they’re not at all the agents of chaos and the author is doing them a disservice conflating them. InSite is actually a credible, scientific effort, and have won their cases accordingly. Not on emotional appeals and pseudo science. Conflating them with illegal dispensaries is criminally negligent as it conflates carnies with scientists, at least it should be. Talk about a buggering of standards.

    Beginnings are the time to ensure that balances are correct. The MMAR was a deliberate freak show and there’s a lot of remnant wrong thinking from it. It’s time to have some standards, and that will be the case if and when it’s ever actually fully “legal” as well. The agents of chaos will need to find some other crutch.

    This is embarrassing:

    “Medical marijuana also represents a threat to experts whose training and authority is derived from the assumption that science will decide what counts as evidence or proof. The use of marijuana as a medicine has been difficult to justify and meaningfully evaluate according to the standards of the medical profession. Its efficacy for patients suffering from chronic illness, for whom standard treatments are often frustrating and futile, requires an understanding of alternative philosophies—promoting personal autonomy, respect for lived experience, and a holistic view of illness, health, and healing—whose values go beyond those of conventional medical science.”

    There’s such a thing as corruption in science and government and the scientific trillion dollar medical industry has had deliberate blinders. A sick stand in for “Science” was forced to ignore this branch and vilify it too. There’s cause for bias correction and there’ll be incentive when there’s profit from it but we seem to have a thing of settling on some really bad science that tells us what we want to hear when we want to make money. There’s absolutely no sane cause to abandon science and further tend towards religion, merely correct the corrupted science. Science has to be expanded on the issue. We should _not_ regress towards lunacy and devolution. That’s aimless and senseless and there’s no sound reason that medical marijuana or even recreational has to be that. The carnies are in control and that’s been the problem. The “patient” is forcibly ignorant and aren’t necessarily the ones who know best. It’s even wrong to assume that’s what drives them.

    Vancouver regulated illegal dispensaries that can’t be misconstrued as “medical” and took some very necessary and progressive measures towards that end to protect the public from what are developing into increasingly significant risks for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t at all render what’s left as “medical” neither can it properly lend them any such legitimacy. The ethical dilemmas begin once we correct understand the nature of the problems. Until then we’re spinning wheels and digging ruts for fetid waters to collect and stagnate in the shadows of ignorance. Nice effort at tackling the issues even though it’s way off the mark.

    Keep on subn

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s