JOURNAL ARTICLE

Regulating compassion: an overview of Canada's federal medical cannabis policy and practice

Philippe G Lucas
Harm Reduction Journal 2008 January 28, 5: 5
18226254

BACKGROUND: In response to a number of court challenges brought forth by Canadian patients who demonstrated that they benefited from the use of medicinal cannabis but remained vulnerable to arrest and persecution as a result of its status as a controlled substance, in 1999 Canada became the second nation in the world to initiate a centralized medicinal cannabis program. Over its six years of existence, this controversial program has been found unconstitutional by a number of courts, and has faced criticism from the medical establishment, law enforcement, as well as the patient/participants themselves.

METHODS: This critical policy analysis is an evidence-based review of court decisions, government records, relevant studies and Access to Information Act data related to the three main facets of Health Canada's medicinal cannabis policy--the Marihuana Medical Access Division (MMAD); the Canadians Institute of Health Research Medical Marijuana Research Program; and the federal cannabis production and distribution program. This analysis also examines Canada's network of unregulated community-based dispensaries.

RESULTS: There is a growing body of evidence that Health Canada's program is not meeting the needs of the nation's medical cannabis patient community and that the policies of the Marihuana Medical Access Division may be significantly limiting the potential individual and public health benefits achievable though the therapeutic use of cannabis. Canada's community-based dispensaries supply medical cannabis to a far greater number of patients than the MMAD, but their work is currently unregulated by any level of government, leaving these organizations and their clients vulnerable to arrest and prosecution.

CONCLUSION: Any future success will depend on the government's ability to better assess and address the needs and legitimate concerns of end-users of this program, to promote and fund an expanded clinical research agenda, and to work in cooperation with community-based medical cannabis dispensaries in order to address the ongoing issue of safe and timely access to this herbal medicine.

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