Medicinal Value of Pot
With his greying, shoulder-length hair and a penchant for tie-dyed shirts, Torontonian Terry Parker carries a clear imprint of the early 1970s. And, like some others who came of age in that freewheeling time, he is a fan of cannabis sativa, otherwise known as marijuana. Unlike most users of the illegal substance, however, 44-year-old Parker smokes it for medical reasons: marijuana is far more effective, he says, than conventional medicine in controlling the epileptic seizures that have plagued him since the age of 4. "I smoke two or three joints a day and get 100-per-cent seizure relief," says Parker. First busted for pot possession in 1977, Parker made legal history last week when the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down the federal criminal law banning marijuana on the grounds that it fails to permit medical use of the drug. The judgment gave Ottawa one year to revise the law - or growing and possessing marijuana will cease to be a crime in Canada's most populous province.
It was the latest in a series of legal decisions that have forced Ottawa to make grudging concessions to Canadians who use marijuana for medical reasons. Proponents say the drug can control symptoms in such diseases as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, and relieve nausea in patients taking AIDS medication and chemotherapy. In December, 1997, a Toronto judge ruled that Parker had a constitutional right to use marijuana for medical reasons and ordered police to return cannabis plants taken from his apartment. As a result of that ruling, Parker became the first Canadian to win an exemption allowing him to grow and possess marijuana. In May of last year, Jim Wakeford, a Torontonian suffering from AIDS, won an Ontario Superior Court ruling that made him the second. "The federal government has made no genuine effort to help suffering Canadians who need marijuana," says Wakeford, who is pressuring Ottawa to provide a legal source of marijuana. "It's the courts that are doing it on a case-by-case basis."
As of last week, Health Canada has approved 61 applications from Canadians wishing to use marijuana for medical purposes. It has also launched a five-year evaluation of the medical effectiveness of the drug. Under that program, researchers hope to begin a pilot study at Montreal General Hospital this fall to test marijuana on about 20 HIV/AIDS patients. The next stage would be to expand the study to about 200 people across Canada. But the studies can only go ahead once Ottawa has established a supply of research-grade marijuana. Federal officials currently are studying applications from commercial growers.
The Ontario court ruling prompted new demands for changes in Canada's marijuana legislation. Ontario's NDP issued a call for decriminalization, echoing a suggestion made by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police in May for more lenient treatment of those found possessing small amounts of marijuana. But the numbers of marijuana-related charges have increased significantly in Canada in recent years, and some legal experts say Ottawa is unlikely to move quickly to change the law. "I have no doubt Ottawa will appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada," said Alan Young, a professor at Toronto's Osgoode Hall law school, "and that the Supreme Court will hear the appeal" - a process that will keep the issue of the medical use of marijuana in limbo for at least a few more years.
Up in Smoke
Marijuana charges have risen in Canada over the past five years:
1995, 30,505; 1999, 39,541
1995, 8,206; 1999,10,150
1995, 4,457; 1999, 8,989
1995, 677; 1999,1,108
Source: Statistics Canada
Maclean's August 14, 2000