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Why Medical Marijuana Is Not a Legal Drug in Canada

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Last month, the Globe and Mail ran an editorial questioning whether Health Canada's oversight of medical marijuana had "gone to pot". The piece outlines the history of medical marijuana legislation in Canada, the potential for profiteering by licensed producers, and takes Health Canada to task for the way they have handled the licensing process as well as for the difficulty the government agency seems to be having in regulating medical marijuana. The editorial would have been pretty much spot-on if it wasn't for a glaring error in the opening sentence: "Medical marijuana is a legal drug in Canada." It isn't.

Drugs 101

In Canada, all authorized drug products, be they prescription or over-the-counter, are assigned a Drug Identification Number (DIN) by Health Canada. This computer-generated eight digit number is displayed on a products' packaging and uniquely identifies the drug as having been evaluated and authorized for sale in Canada. Physicians, pharmacists and the public rely on the DIN to verify information about a drug's characteristics, manufacturer, product name, active ingredient(s), strength, pharmaceutical form, and route of administration. In many ways, a DIN serves as Health Canada's seal of approval and it is what permits a manufacturer to legally market a drug in Canada. As far as consumers go, it lets users know that the product has undergone and passed a rigorous review and is, with proper dosage and administration, safe and suitable for treating a particular condition.

As far as the sale of drugs goes in Canada, having a DIN is so important that, according to Health Canada, "A drug product sold in Canada without a DIN is not in compliance with Canadian law." and "If a product defined as a drug under the Food and Drugs Act is sold without a DIN, it is not in compliance with Canadian law and regulatory action will be taken." Funnily enough, medical marijuana does not have a DIN.

Medical marijuana is not a legal drug in Canada. It is an illicit (illegal) substance and Health Canada's current accessibility policy hasn't changed that fact. Marijuana has not been designated a prescription medication or medication of any kind. Not only does it not currently have a DIN, it looks like it will not have one any time soon. According to the Medical Use of Marijuana section on Health Canada's website, DIN's can only be issued after Health Canada scientists have assessed a drug's safety, efficacy and quality in order to be sure it meets Regulations and the requirements of the Food and Drug Act. According to Health Canada, "To date, marijuana for medical purposes has not been show to meet these requirements, and therefore cannot receive a DIN." And, given that the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations "do not specify or limit what strains of marijuana can be cultivated," -- in other words, standards are not in place -- nor will it meet those requirements anytime soon.

The Globe and Mail's article ends with the question, "Why is Health Canada finding this so difficult?" Maybe it's because Health Canada has created a situation where doctors have been placed in the unfair position of prescribing an illicit substance to trusting patients and producers are focusing on manipulating the value of their licenses in order to jack up their company's stock price. Or, putting it another way, maybe it's because Health Canada is trying to close the stable door after the horse has already bolted.


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