VANCOUVER -- Ottawa's decision to snuff its role in dispensing medical marijuana has ignited a debate over how the move will impact public health and safety.
A range of groups -- including those representing law enforcement officials, physicians and medical cannabis advocates -- were reacting Sunday after the federal health ministry announced it will stop producing and distributing medicinal pot in favour of opening the market to private companies.
The current program has allowed anyone with a government permit to grow it themselves, including in their own homes. But the Conservatives argue that with 26,000 permits handed out over the past decade, the system has become unwieldy and resulted in "unintended consequences."
"We have heard real concerns from law enforcement, fire officials and municipalities about how people are hiding behind these rules to conduct illegal activity," Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said in a release.
The government intends to implement changes by March 31, 2014 that will do away with the system of individual permits so that only companies meeting security requirements can grow and sell the drug.
The move has drawn criticism from a number of sides, and not everyone against the changes supports the use of medical marijuana.
Doctors represented by the Canadian Medical Association used harsh words to pan the move, arguing the government is abdicating its necessary role as regulator.
"There's huge potential for harm to patients and the federal government's decision is equivalent to asking doctors to prescribe while blindfolded," said Dr. Anna Reid, CMA president.
Reid said the decision does not put patients first, while leaving doctors to deal with a substance that has little clinical evidence to back its use.
She added that the strains of pot being produced today are much more powerful than in the past, and they have not been rigorously tested.
Meanwhile, a not-for-profit that supports cannabis dispensaries in communities said it too is reluctant to endorse the change because it means the drug remains unaffordable to those who need it.
The Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries "remains concerned that patients will continue facing barriers to access," said president Rade Kovacevic.
He cited research that more than 50 per cent of medical marijuana users currently obtain their medicine through dispensaries.
Putting production in the hands of companies will mean the government will no longer subsidize the cost, which had been upwards of $5 a gram. Under the new system the cost will rise to $8.80 a gram.
Another grassroots coalition is seeking support for a legal challenge of the changes, setting up a trust fund and campaigning to bring anyone who holds a medical marijuana licence on board.
The coalition's co-founder, Jason Wilcox, argues all people should have not only the right to access affordable and quality cannabis for medical use, but also be able to legally produce it.
In a letter urging others with permits to support the campaign, he suggests mounting a constitutional challenge to the government's changes.
Standing most staunchly in support of the government are associations representing Canadian fire chiefs and police chiefs. They agree that removing permits from individuals will promote health and safety because the change will legally eliminate the ability for people to grow pot in their own homes.
Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu, who heads the chiefs of police association, said the changes are "necessary to reduce the risk of abuse and exploitation" by criminals seeking to make a profit.
Stephen Gamble, who heads the fire chiefs' association, noted one in 22 grow-ops catch fire, which is 24 times more frequent than the average home.
"We applaud the Government of Canada for strengthening Health Canada's regulations," he said.
The government said it's making the changes after a broad consultation process. It is accepting public comment for 75 days.
Patients who want to use marijuana as medical treatment after the changes come into effect will sign a medical document similar to a prescription, which they can then take to authorized vendors for purchase.
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