03/18/2016 02:18 EDT | Updated 03/19/2017 05:12 EDT

Segregating Medical Marijuana Patients Isn't The Answer

FILE - In this April 23, 2014, file photo, Daryl Cura demonstrates an e-cigarette at Vape store in Chicago. Some schools are taking stricter measures to keep e-cigarettes out of students’ hands, even punishing possession of the devices more harshly than regular cigarettes, because the devices, sometimes also known as vaporizers, can also be used for illegal substances like marijuana. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

In 1997 my father was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer. He underwent treatments, both conventional and alternative, and despite a courageous fight, he passed away in the spring of 1998.

During his illness I visited with him and my mother quite often and remember how people looked at him while he had the stent that delivered chemotherapy drugs directly to a vein in his chest. There was a palpable sense of discomfort.

I have to admit, I had the same feeling of discomfort; the strong and vibrant man I remembered wasted away, as much from the treatments as from the cancer.

As if the pain and suffering from the cancer and the treatments weren't bad enough, he had to suffer the indignity of people's discomfort with his illness. It made him retreat from social interaction, and perhaps that isolation accelerated his demise. At a minimum, it reduced his quality of life during his last few months.

I can understand that discomfort. It's the same feeling people get when they go to the hospital, or visit a seniors' residence, or witness a diabetic testing their blood sugar or injecting insulin. These things remind us of our own weaknesses and mortality.

How do we balance between maintaining the rights of individuals who are ill, while respecting the natural discomfort people feel around illness? Should we even have to ask this question as a matter of public policy?

In Ontario, at least, it appears the government has decided that the public's discomfort with illness is more important than the rights and dignity of individuals who are ill, at least for some people.

Recent changes to the Smoke Free Ontario Act that will come in to effect in the months ahead will affect the rights of medicinal cannabis patients inadvertently. The original exemptions intended for these people were reversed by the Ontario government, I imagine due to public backlash to the poorly communicated policy.

This type of public policy is not new, where the rights of some citizens are more important than those of others. It's called segregation.

Let's be perfectly clear about these patients: they aren't "getting high," they are treating debilitating diseases like PTSD, severe anxiety disorders and countering the effects of chemotherapy.

At different times in decades and centuries past, people suffering from mental illnesses were locked away, kept in often barbaric conditions. Children and adults who had developmental delays or genetic disorders were treated similarly.

We are all familiar with racial segregation as well, where the rights of white citizens were more important than those of non-whites, the "equal but separate" model was supported by governments and courts alike.

The LGBTQ community continues to fight for equality at home, where major gains have been made, and around the world.

I think we can all agree that these type of segregation policies have no place in a progressive society, and certainly not in Ontario where "Moving Forward" has been the motto of the government for over a decade.

By equating medicinal cannabis with tobacco and applying the same rules to its sale and use, the Ontario government is effectively telling patients to get back in to the closet where they belong. It's a regressive policy that has no place in this country.

Health Canada has regulated medicinal cannabis and approved the use of vaporizers for the delivery of cannabis for patients. The courts have affirmed and re-affirmed the rights of medicinal cannabis patients numerous times, most recently a few weeks ago with the Allard decision in British Columbia.

Politically, I understand this position. The 25,000 or so medicinal cannabis patients in Ontario can be thrown under the bus to appease the other 12 million residents who are confused with the cannabis exemption.

This confusion about cannabis exists while we contemplate legalization of recreational use marijuana and people believe the exemption would apply to any cannabis use and all forms of cannabis.

Let's be perfectly clear about these patients: they aren't "getting high," they are treating debilitating diseases like PTSD, severe anxiety disorders and countering the effects of chemotherapy.

Ontario spends tens of thousands of dollars annually to educate the public about prescription medication abuse and the dangers of not properly disposing of prescriptions. Surely that makes more sense then banning all pain medications because some of them may be abused.

Let's use that same common-sense approach before we trample on the rights of licensed cannabis patients. Public perception should play no part in determining policy that affect our most fundamental human rights.

Let's keep moving forward in Ontario and re-instate the medicinal cannabis exemption that was intended in this legislation.

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