Proposed changes to the federal program enabling access to medical marijuana could enhance the safety of emergency responders and the community.
The federal government announced Friday it is considering improvements to the program, including phasing out personal and designated production and introducing a new supply and distribution system for dried marijuana that relies on licensed commercial producers.
Ron Lambert, Nanaimo Fire Rescue chief, said at the bare minimum, firefighters have lobbied the government to tell them when a grow operation exists in a private home so crews know of the dangers before they go inside.
But phasing out residential operations altogether is even better, he added.
“Most of these operations that we see that are under permit don’t meet any electrical standard,” said Lambert. “When you have these installations that aren’t built to any code, the chances of a fire is much higher.”
And if there is a fire, with the amount of electrical wires, chemicals and building alterations typically found in a private grow-op, the risk to firefighters is significant, he said.
“We haven’t had any injuries as a result, but certainly the risk is there,” he said. “Water and electricity – they don’t like each other. From a public safety perspective, we see the legislation as a good thing.”
Given all the other problems associated with private grow-ops, such as mould and air quality issues, keeping production to commercial facilities is better, said Lambert.
“I don’t think they belong [in residences] because of the problems they create,” he said. “It needs a commercial setting.”
Mayor John Ruttan said one of the risks of allowing people to produce marijuana privately is that it could lead to overproduction, which means the product could end up used for purposes other than medicinal, including criminal purposes.
Commercial operations would be easier to supervise, he added.
The proposed changes are intended to reduce the risk of abuse and exploitation by criminal elements and keep children and communities safe.
“These proposed improvements reflect concerns we have heard from all kinds of Canadians including law enforcement, fire officials, municipalities, program participants and the medical profession,” said Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of Health, in a press release.
Other proposed changes include: eliminating the categories of conditions and symptoms to qualify for medical marijuana; submitting a physician’s document directly to the commercial grower rather than to Health Canada; and requiring commercial producers to prove compliance with various requirements, including security, product quality and packaging and labelling standards.
Commercial producers would only grow indoors, set the price for marijuana and send product only by registered mail or bonded courier.
Legalization or decriminalization is not part of the changes and the determination of whether medical marijuana is appropriate would still be made through a discussion between a physician and the patient.
Health Canada also proposes to establish an expert advisory committee to improve physician access to comprehensive and up-to-date information on the potential risks and benefits of using marijuana for medical purposes.
Canadians are invited to submit comments on the proposed improvements until July 31 at www.hc-sc.gc.ca.
Changes could hinder access
A licensed medical marijuana user in Nanaimo says the federal government’s proposal to eliminate personal production and require people to use licensed commercial producers instead could take away her ability to ensure she gets what she needs.
Pam Edgar uses marijuana to control chronic pain from nerve and bone damage to her left leg from a 1975 motorcycle accident and muscle spasms triggered by multiple sclerosis.
She grows her own marijuana on another person’s property. Growing it herself allows her to choose the specific strains she wants and how the plant is grown.
“It’s like growing your own food – what better way to know you’re getting what you need?” she said. “I want to be able to identify the plant, to watch it bloom. I blend four strains throughout the day. Am I going to have access to that?”
Instead of eliminating the categories of conditions and symptoms that qualify for medical marijuana, Edgar would like to see the government legalize it and then control and regulate it.
“The best way to get rid of the criminal element is legalize,” she said. “Bring it all into the sunlight. If somebody wants to use cannabis recreationally, I think they should be able to do that, too.”
As for the government’s proposal to streamline things by having patients deal directly with commercial growers, Edgar wonders if this will indeed speed things up, but she agrees there is need for improvement – there was a lengthy delay last year between submitting her application and receiving a renewed licence.
As of January 2010, 4,884 people are authorized to possess medical marijuana and 1,372 live in B.C. More than 3,500 people are authorized to cultivate medical marijuana.