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Rights + Justice

For Ottawa Family, Edible Cannabis Ruling a Welcome Reprieve

Seven-year-old's rare seizure treatment now recognized under the law.

Jeremy Nuttall 12 Jun

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

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Mandy McKnight begins her days by reaching across the bed to touch her seven-year-old son. Each morning she hopes his body is still warm.

McKnight's son, Liam, suffers from Dravet syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy that can result in 70 seizures per day.

After trying several medicines, McKnight said she found that cannabis was the only thing that curbed her son's seizures. She estimates it reduces them by about 90 per cent.

Health Canada granted permission for McKnight to give Liam medical cannabis in 2013. But at the time, the Ottawa mother's only legal option was to get her then five-year-old son to smoke it.

"I thought it was crazy, I still think it's crazy," McKnight said. "Who gets a five-year-old to smoke?"

She said it was out of the question to force her already-ill son to smoke cannabis, and made pot oil in spite of the law.

For two years, she treated her son's life-threatening disease by infusing medicinal marijuana into an ingestible coconut oil.

Until a Supreme Court of Canada ruling against the Crown Thursday, McKnight was breaking the rules in separating the active chemical -- tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC -- from marijuana leaves.

'Frankly, I'm outraged': Ambrose

It's not just parents of children like Liam using cannabis this way. People with illnesses like asthma or emphysema also do not want to smoke their prescribed cannabis and prefer to put a derivative of it into something edible.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled there's nothing wrong with that, calling the law against edible marijuana arbitrary and limiting to security and liberty.

"We have concluded that restricting medical access to marijuana to its dried form is inconsistent with the Charter," reads part of the decision. "It follows that to this extent the restriction is null and void."

Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose slammed the court's decision, asserting that marijuana has not passed clinical trials and safety reviews -- the kind her government cut in 2006.

"Frankly, I'm outraged by the Supreme Court," Ambrose told reporters Thursday. She added it's not her "job" as health minister to make sure such trials are conducted.

In its judgment the court noted Canadian courts have already granted access to medical marijuana, so restricting how it is taken can't be justified.

The court said having to smoke medicinal marijuana is not a viable means of consumption for some patients. "Inhaling marihuana can present health risks and is less effective for some conditions than administration of cannabis derivatives," the ruling said.

Legal grey zone remains

McKnight said there was always a fear in the back of her mind about breaking the law to make Liam's oil.

She feels that pressure lifted, but Chuck Rifici, a shareholder in licensed medical marijuana production company Tweed and the Liberal Party of Canada's chief financial officer, said that McKnight could still be in an iffy legal situation because the ruling doesn't specify if caregivers can make derivatives from medical pot.

Rifici said the ruling is a step in the right direction, but doesn't give the green light for companies like his to make edible marijuana products.

The ruling stems from the conviction of Owen Smith, a Victoria man who was charged with possession of THC for the purpose of trafficking when police seized more than 200 baked goods and other extracts.

He won his case in B.C.'s highest court, which was appealed by the federal government. The government contends marijuana is not a proven treatment.

Smith himself took up the medical marijuana cause after his sister used it to ease her pain during her final days battling cancer. He said he was surprised to be the first to bring the fight to the Supreme Court of Canada.

"By waging a war on this medicine, the government is waging a war on these families and their love that they have for each other," Smith said over the phone from Victoria. "I don't think that's a winnable fight."  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Rights + Justice

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