NEW YORK — Canadians who are terminally ill or suffering from certain chronic illnesses may grow and smoke their own marijuana under new rules that went into effect Monday.
Despite protests from doctors, who argue that they will now be under pressure to prescribe a substance of unproven medical value, the Canadian government greatly expanded a program that previously limited medical marijuana to about 300 people nationwide.
Now, with a doctor's certificate, anyone with a terminal illness or suffering from certain chronic conditions can apply for a government ID card allowing access to the drug.
Those suffering serious pain from cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, arthritis, glaucoma and spinal cord problems may qualify.
"This compassionate measure will improve the quality of life of sick Canadians, particularly those who are terminally ill," Health Minister Allan Rock said.
Medical marijuana advocates have found a sympathetic ear in Rock, who acknowledged two years ago that he had used marijuana.
The new policy stems from a 1996 case involving an epileptic man, Terrence Parker, who said that using cannabis was the only way to control his seizures. He sued for the right to have access to marijuana after being arrested many times for possession, cultivation and trafficking.
Last summer, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that keeping marijuana illegal violated the rights of those who can demonstrate medical need.
The policy stands in stark contrast with the U.S. policy. Eight states, including California, had permitted limited consumption of marijuana for medicinal use, but the Supreme Court ruled in May that there should be no exceptions in federal law, even for relieving symptoms of serious illness.
For those who can't grow their own, the Canadian government has licensed a company to provide a reliable supply. Prairie Plant Systems will grow the plants in an underground mine in Manitoba and produce pre-rolled cigarettes. Licensed patients will receive a 30-day supply at a time.
Plants grown for medical use have only 6% THC, the primary active ingredient in marijuana, compared with levels of 15% to 18% in the drug sold on the street.
Jake Peters, a 51-year-old Toronto man who received a medical exemption in April, said he is pleased that there is now an alternative to dealing with "unsavory characters who carry weapons."
However, Peters, who did not want to disclose the illness for which he is using the drug, said he is unenthusiastic about trying the government supply.
"I have asthma, so when I smoke, it's better that I have more potent marijuana so I don't have to smoke so much of it," he said. The drug's effects have helped him live better, if not longer, he believes.
"It relaxes me, I feel less pain, it stimulates my appetite and makes me sleep," he said.
But Canada's doctors are wary.
"We are still disappointed the fundamental medical issues of quality, efficacy and patient safety have been ignored," the Canadian Medical Assn. said in a statement. "These regulations are placing Canadian physicians and their patients in the precarious position of attempting to access a product that has not gone through the normal protocols of rigorous pre-market testing."
Although the new law makes limited cultivation legal, possessing marijuana seeds is still against the law. It will take time for the government distribution system to work.
Jim Wakeford, a 55-year-old Ontario man with AIDS, has grown marijuana for a small circle of friends and people in medical need. But police interference has nearly made him give up, and he says the new regulations don't help much.
"The exemptions are illusory," he said.