Canada's Medical Cannabis Conundrum

On June 11, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Canadians with a valid prescription could take medical marijuana in other forms besides just a dried form.


In short, the Supreme Court enlarged the definition of medical marijuana, meaning restrictions on extracts and derivatives are now gone and brownies, cookies, shakes are no longer illegal.

And the Canadian government wasn’t pleased.

Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose scolded the Supreme Court and told the press she was “outraged” by the ruling.

“Let’s remember, there's only one authority in Canada that has the authority and the expertise to make a drug into a medicine and that's Health Canada," she said during a press conference.

"Marijuana has never gone through the regulatory approval process at Health Canada, which of course, requires a rigorous safety review and clinical trials with scientific evidence."

She also asserted that the Supreme Court’s decision “normalizes” medical marijuana, something that she and the Conservative government would continue to fight against.

This response was not a surprise. Ambrose, who has been at the forefront of Canada’s current drug war, has overseen the passage of regulations in October 2013 that have prevented any heroin-assisted addiction therapy outside of limited trials. She has delayed the introduction of e-cigarettes into the marketplace. And she has pushed for more regulations on prescription drug abuse.

From a political perspective, the Supreme Court decision could be interpreted as a rebuke of the Conservative Party’s tough-on-crime, anti-drugs strategy. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been waging a Canadian War on Drugs since 2007 and the Safe Streets and Communities Act includes mandatory minimum sentences for possession of pot.

Considering the Conservative Party’s approach, then, Rona Ambrose’s reaction was predictable. She, along with the Tories, start from a position that regards cannabis as a “drug of abuse” rather than a drug of “potential use.”

At the same time, the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, have advocated an evidence-based approach to marijuana and is promoting its legalization and controlling access.

As the federal election in the fall grows nearer, the cannabis issue – and its use in the medical marketplace – will surely become heightened.

But is the story of medical marijuana purely a political issue in Canada? Not really.

The medical establishment in Canada continues to grapple with the stimgatization and lack of evidence surrounding cannabis.

It’s important to be clear. Medical marijuana is not approved as a medicine by Health Canada, although there is a growing body of clinical evidence regarding its pain-alleviating effects.

As such, physicians in Canada have struggled with the science and ethics of medical marijuana. At the 147th annual meeting of the Canadian Medical Association in Ottawa last August, many doctors expressed serious reservations about prescribing marijuana.

Some doctors said they felt threatened or intimidated into signing prescriptions, whereas others felt as though patients were shopping for doctors. Worst of all, there were reported cases of malfeasance, where doctors charged their patients for a prescription.

The result of this is that the CMA remains divided on, if not outright opposed to being the gatekeepers of medical marijuana.

Just like Americans, in the years ahead Canadians are going to have to negotiate the politics of pain, pot, and pills. The fall election – a full year before the U.S. presidential election - will feature themes of consumer protection and drug regulation, the right to choose one’s medication and the government’s responsibility to protect Canadians.

The Supreme Court decision in early June made the issue of medical marijuana a lot more intriguing.

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