VANCOUVER - Changes to the medical marijuana program that will force patients to stop growing their own pot will violate the rights of those who won't be able to afford marijuana under the new system or obtain strains that work for them, their lawyer told Federal Court on Tuesday.
More than a decade after a landmark court case forced Ottawa to legalize medical marijuana, a group of patients were in Federal Court on Tuesday asking a judge to temporarily block new regulations that will limit production to approved commercial growers.
As of April 1, patients currently licensed to grow or possess medical marijuana under the old system will be breaking the law unless they dismantle their grow-ops and destroy their plants and seeds.
The patients' lawyer, John Conroy, urged the judge to issue an injunction to allow those patients to continue growing and possessing marijuana under the old regulations until their legal challenge goes to trial.
He argued the law will deprive the patients of their right to access important medicine, and he pointed to the federal government's own research that concludes medical marijuana prices are expected to initially increase when the new rules take effect.
"The legislation not only doesn't address the poor or those who can't afford (marijuana under the new system), but it takes away the right to produce completely," Conroy told the court.
"The government ... has come up with a scheme that doesn't create a supply to everyone and expects those who can't afford it to wait and see what happens over time instead of preserving the constitutional rights of the patients."
Dozens of people filled the public gallery, including patients and medical marijuana advocates, some of whom could be seen smoking pot outside before the hearing started. The distinct smell of marijuana hung in the courtroom as lawyers presented their arguments.
The federal government first introduced its medical marijuana regulations in 2001, a year after an Ontario court found the law violated the rights of sick people who used pot to alleviate their ailments.
The number of people authorized to possess — and often grow — marijuana has increased to 37,000 this year from fewer than 100 in 2001.
The Conservative government announced a significant overhaul of the system last year and has since been accepting applications from commercial growers.
The federal government has defended the new regulations by arguing home grow-ops pose numerous hazards, including mould, fire, toxic chemicals and the threat of home invasion by criminals.
Conroy told the court the federal government has presented little evidence to show medical marijuana growers represent a significant risk to the public.
He said the government is instead relying on anecdotes from police. Even then, Conroy said the government has identified only a few hundred problem cases out of tens of thousands of medical marijuana licences.
"We don't dispute for a minute that there is abuse," said Conroy. "We just say that the abuses and the abusers shouldn't be allowed to prejudice the legitimate users."
Jan Brongers, a lawyer for the federal government, said there is no constitutional right to subsidized medicine. He rejected the patients' claims that medical marijuana will be out of reach under the new regime.
"The evidence doesn't show it will be so expensive that these plaintiffs, who apparently can afford to set up and maintain their own operations, will be completely unable to afford this legal supply of marijuana," said Brongers.
He said the government's goal of protecting the public should outweigh the patients' concerns about price and quality.
Brongers also argued that allowing the new system to take effect will help the court to see how patients are actually affected by the time the case makes it to trial.
"We submit that if the motion (for an injunction) is dismissed, it would give the new commercial marijuana market a chance to get off the ground," said Brongers.
"It will ensure that when this court actually conducts a trial, it can do so with the benefit of evidence of months worth of practical experience."
Health Canada has said anyone licensed to grow under the current rules must sign a form by April 30 confirming they have stopped growing and have destroyed their plants. The department has warned that anyone who doesn't comply will be reported to police.
The patients' lawyer also asked for an injunction that would prevent Health Canada from following through on that threat.
The judge said he expects to rule on the injunction application by Friday.
A trial date has not been set. Brongers said a trial would likely be scheduled for early next year, though the judge suggested the case may be heard earlier than that.
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A view of Tweed Inc.’s mother room, where plants are subjected to 24 hours of light each day to encourage growth.
The Tweed Inc. medical marijuana facility is across the street from the Smith’s Falls police detachment. The police have toured the plant and had one request: don’t put a giant marijuana leaf on the front of the building.
Tweed CEO Chuck Rifici stands in front of the hydroponics centre. The black vats contain fertilizer, while the silver ones are refurbished sugar containers from the Hershey’s operation which now contain water.
Tweed has been busy transforming the former chocolate factory into a massive marijuana growing operation that will cover 150,000 square feet.
A Tweed employee re-pots some plants in the “mother room,” home to the 1,300 starter plants that are used to propagate more.
Rifici stands in front of the company’s 5,000-square-foot vault that can store up to 15 million grams, or $150 million-worth, of dried marijuana.
Each of Tweed’s plants is labelled with a bar code identifying its strain and origin so that it can be traced throughout the growing process.
Rifici stands in front of the highly secure and sanitary mother room.
Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning are Tweed’s biggest expense, but the company also uses low-tech fans from Canadian Tire to keep air flowing.
The entrance to the Tweed facility.
The golden letters that once adorned the front of the Hershey’s factory now lie in an unused corner of the building.
The old Hershey’s Canada plant was shuttered in 2008, putting some 600 people out of work.
NEXT: WHICH PROVINCE TOKES THE MOST?
Canada - 12.2 Per Cent
3,429,678 people These are the <a href="http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/130918/dq130918a-eng.htm" target="_blank">StatsCan totals</a> for Canadians age 15 years and older in the 12 months of 2012. Use included cannabis and hashish.
10. Saskatchewan - 10.1 Per Cent
9. P.E.I. - 10.4 Per Cent
8. New Brunswick - 11 Per Cent
7. Newfoundland And Labrador - 11.1 Per Cent
6. Quebec - 11.5 Per Cent
5. Manitoba - 11.5 Per Cent
4. Alberta - 11.8 Per Cent
3. Ontario - 12.1 Per Cent
2. B.C. - 14.2 Per Cent
1. Nova Scotia - 14.8 Per Cent
115,285 people <a href="http://huff.to/18g3q4l" target="_blank">Trailer Park Boys thesis proved</a>.
NEXT: WEED PRICES BY PROVINCE AND STATE
Pot price by province and select U.S. states
This data is based on crowdsourced averages from PriceOfWeed.com. Numbers are for "high quality" weed, as identified by submitters.
Quebec: $191.51 per ounce
Cheapest weed in Canada.
Prince Edward Island: $193.29 per ounce
New Brunswick: $193.90 per ounce
British Columbia: $200.07 per ounce
Oregon: $214.79 per ounce
Cheapest weed in the U.S.
Alberta: $226.55 per ounce
Manitoba: $227.86 per ounce
Ontario: $237.24 per ounce
Saskatchewan: $239.31 per ounce
California: $249.79 per ounce
Nova Scotia: $272.26 per ounce
Newfoundland and Labrador: $292.73 per ounce
Northwest Territories: $333.33 per ounce
New York State: $353.90 per ounce
North Dakota: $415.89 per ounce
Most expensive weed in the U.S.
Most expensive weed in Canada.