Medicinal Grow-ops Remain Uncharted Territory

Many pose hazards, say Surrey officials. But other local BC politicians worry more oversight will snuff out a good thing.

By Tom Sandborn 12 Oct 2011 |

Tom Sandborn covers health policy and labour beats for the Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips -- click here to reveal his email address.

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Pot as medicine: Balancing privacy against municipal safety concerns.

When Dan Barnscher, Surrey's deputy fire chief, travelled to Vancouver at the end of September, he was there to warn municipal politicians from across the province that marijuana grown for medical purposes was causing problems in his city. The hard-to-locate grow-ops posed risks ranging from bad smells to fire hazards, said Barnscher.

That's why the deputy chief was part of a Surrey delegation pushing the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) to pass a resolution calling on Health Canada to require that licensed grow-ops be obliged to comply with all local zoning and safety regulations, so that municipalities would know of every licensed grow operation within their boundaries.

The resolution failed to pass -- as had similar resolutions in previous years. Why wouldn't cities seek more control over the places where cannabis is being grown for medicinal purposes?

Barnscher himself confided a fact that helps explain why the local politics of medical marijuana are more complicated than they might appear.

He revealed that his deceased mother had used legally obtained cannabis during her final illness. That made her one among a million -- the number of medicinal pot-using Canadians by some estimates.

'Let's legalize it': Metchosin councillor

For Barnscher, the issue is not whether medical marijuana is sometimes effective. He just wants to make sure that Surrey and other municipalities know of all the legal grow-ops within their borders and can enforce all applicable zoning and safety regulations.

"I'm all for medical marijuana," the deputy chief told The Tyee.

But then, so is Moralea Milne, a city councillor from the Vancouver Island community of Metchosin. Milne got a round of applause and laughter at the UBCM gathering when she called for making pot legal, period.

"The resolution before us is a Band-Aid solution," Milne said. "Everyone in this room has probably tried pot at least once. Let's legalize it. Pot is a part of the fabric of our community."

Milne later told The Tyee she herself hadn't smoked cannabis in decades.

Tightening controls on medical marijuana production has been a tough sell for several years at UBCM. In 2009, the convention declined to endorse a medical marijuana resolution due to concerns about medical privacy.

This year, the UBCM referred the Surrey resolution back to its executive committee, putting off for a second year the attempt to have the provincial umbrella group take a stand on medical marijuana.

But before the resolution was sent back, delegates who attended an early morning clinic titled "Medical Marijuana Access Regulations: Local Government Interests" heard Barnscher and City Solicitor Craig MacFarlane present the case for the Surrey position. They argued that the current Health Canada regime for medical marijuana production and distribution creates unacceptable risks to local communities.

The Surrey officials cited the existence of 38 legal but previously unknown grow-ops in their town that they had "stumbled upon" because of tips from neighbours or routine inspections, and invoked the dangers of illicit re-wiring, pesticide contamination and noxious smells they said occurred at unregulated grow-ops, whether licensed or not.

Waiting for the feds

The morning clinic and the later debate in the general meeting both heard passionate statements from city councillors, some of who identified themselves as users of licensed medical marijuana.

One of those was Victoria City Councillor Philippe Lucas, a hepatitis C sufferer who sponsored the move to refer the Surrey resolution until next year.

Lucas, who is a research affiliate with the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C., pointed out that Health Canada was still involved in consultations about proposed changes to Canada's contentious medical marijuana regime, calling the proposed Surrey resolution "premature."

In a conversation that day with The Tyee, Lucas said that Health Canada itself reports over a million Canadians say they use cannabis for medical purposes and that 44 per cent of Canadians have used pot at some point in their lives, with 10 per cent of Canadian adults reporting cannabis use within the last month.

Lucas said he supports what he calls "evidence-based public policy," designed to mitigate harms. He advocates cannabis decriminalization and a community based, decentralized system for access to cannabis in which local dispensaries would play a "huge role."

"Prohibition does more harm than good," Lucas said. "It creates crime and has been a huge failure." He said that jurisdictions such as Holland and Portugal that have decriminalized personal use of cannabis have seen reduced levels of substance abuse, especially among young people.

"But decriminalization and medical marijuana are different issues," he underlined. "Whatever happens in terms of decriminalization, we should be trying to make access to medical use cannabis easier, less bureaucratic and more decentralized. We need to increase options for patients."

Violation of privacy?

Another convention delegate who opposed the Surrey resolution and publicly identified as a medical marijuana user was Joy Davies, a first term member of the Grand Forks council. Davies, a semi-retired businesswoman who operates an antique shop in Grand Forks, told The Tyee that medical cannabis eased the symptoms of her fibromyalgia and attention deficit disorder. She first became an advocate for better access to medical marijuana after a friend of hers, denied a Health Canada license, committed suicide. Since then, she has not only used medical marijuana to make her own life more bearable, but she has also nursed her mother at the end of her life, using cannabis tea to ease pain and promote appetite and weight gain. The cannabis helped her mother have, she said with obvious emotion, "the best possible death."

Barnscher noted that Surrey had adopted a bylaw this summer designed to regulate medical marijuana production.

The new bylaw came under fire from anti-prohibition and medical marijuana activists when it was proposed, with one prominent activist saying it would require every patient, as well as those producing for other patients, to register with the City.

"This is the equivalent of requiring patients to register with the City before filing a prescription," said Jacob Hunter, Policy Director of the Beyond Prohibition Foundation. "Can you imagine telling a patient in intense pain that they have to file for a City permit to fill a morphine prescription? This proposed bylaw is unthinkably cruel."

Confusing legal terrain

All this debate about medical marijuana and its regulation is taking place in a confused legal context in Canada, as Victoria Councillor Lucas pointed out to The Tyee. "Over the last decade," he said, "Canadian laws on marijuana have been ruled unconstitutional seven times."

Most recently, in an April 12 ruling ruling in the case R. vs. Mernagh, Ontario Superior Court Justice Donald Taliano found that Canada's Marihuana Medical Access Regulations and "the prohibitions against the possession and production of cannabis (marihuana) contained in sections 4 and 7 respectively of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act" are "constitutionally invalid and of no force and effect."

So if the Union of BC Municipalities finds it hard to arrive at a consensus on medical cannabis, it is in good company. Clearly, the courts of the land are having the same difficulty, and Health Canada, some critics say, is floundering too.

Meanwhile, if the figure of a million Canadians who use cannabis for medical reasons is accurate, the current Health Canada program that has enrolled an estimated 10,000 licensed users is clearly not adequate. Some observers will hold out hope that the current Health Canada policy review and consultation will help cure a system that is ill with bureaucratic delays and irrational reluctance to let Canadians choose the medicines that work for them.

Only time will tell if that hope is sound, or just more federal smoke and mirrors.

Find more Tyee reporting on Rights and Justice here.  [Tyee]

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