MONTREAL -- Canada yesterday announced that it will start selling cheap pot to ill people seeking surcease from pain, becoming the first country in the world to supply so-called ''medical marijuana'' directly to patients.
Acting under court pressure, Health Canada -- the federal ministry of health -- said 1,650 baggies of marijuana are already packed and ready for sale to patients suffering from pain or nausea as the result of disease, chemotherapy used to treat cancer, AIDS, and other serious sicknesses. Marijuana also will be sold to people not expected to live more than a year.
The price is right, supplies should begin moving by next week, and the marijuana grown under government contract will be more reliably potent than anything peddled on the street, officials said.
''It's a splendid product, with a THC content of 10 percent,'' Cindy Cripps-Prawak, director of the federal office of Cannabis Medical Access, said in a conference call with reporters. Tetrahydrocannabinol is the psychoactive chemical that gives marijuana its punch; marijuana sold on the street has THC levels ranging from 3 percent to 16 percent, according to police.
Health Canada also said it will provide marijauna seeds to ''authorized persons'' wanting to sow and cultivate their own marijuana crop so long as the purpose of the harvest is medicinal.
Officials said 582 ill individuals have already been approved for the controversial program, although tens of thousands are expected to apply for the government marijuana, grown with artificial light in hydroponic vats 1,200 feet underground in a disused section of a zinc mine in Flin Flon, Manitoba.
But marijuana activists called the announcement a ''smoke screen,'' and accused Ottawa of dragging its heels on the program to assist ill people whose symptoms might be alleviated by regular use. Marijuana should be distributed to hundreds of thousands of Canadians, not mere hundreds, said organizers of a protest yesterday outside Parliament in Ottawa.
''They have bungled the program and have done nothing to help 400,000 Canadians who need access to medicinal marijuana,'' said Philippe Lucas, head of the group Canadians for Safe Access, which advocates easy access to marijuana for almost any patient wanting succor. ''This benign herb has a high safety profile and should be readily available.''
Canadian medical organizations, however, oppose the program because it puts physicians in the postion of being asked to prescribe a drug that has not undergone the sort of clinical trials required of ordinary pharmaceuticals.
''There is no scientific proof of either the effectiveness or safety [of marijuana] for short- or long-term use,'' said Dana Hanson, president of the Canadian Medical Association. ''There has been a glaring lack of consultation with physicians on this program -- yet physicians are being put in a position where patients may expect us to prescribe or dispense the substance.
''We're urging our doctors not to dispense [marijuana], since there is so much professional risk,'' he said.
Canada officially created its medical marijuana program in 2001, but it quickly became bogged down in bureaucratic delays. In January, an Ontario court gave Ottawa six months to start dispensing pot, ruling that federal drug laws made ''seriously ill, vulnerable people deal with the underworld to get medicine.''
Yesterday's announcement that the government will start selling medical marijuana comes as Prime Minister Jean Chretien pursues legislation that will decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use -- a proposal bitterly opposed by the Bush adminstration, which fears a flood of the drug into the United States.
The government price for medical marijuana will be equivalent to $106 an ounce -- less than half the average street price in Canada, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Marijuana seeds will be sold at $15 for a packet of 30.
Sale of medical marijuana -- grown by Saskatchewan-based Prairie Plant Systems Inc. -- will be limited to people suffering from chronic or catastrophic illnesses, including cancer, HIV or AIDS, arthritis, multiple sclerois, or mystery ailments that cause serious pain or nausea but cannot be readily diagnosed.
''This medical marijuana program promotes research on the medical value of marijuana while taking a compassionate approach to Canadians who suffer from serious medical conditions,'' said Health Minister Anne McLellan.
Although at least 12 states have approved the use of marijuana with a doctor's approval, the US Supreme Court in 2001 upheld a federal ban on medical marijuana.
Health Canada said yesterday that it is advising patients not to smoke the marijuana, but rather sprinkle it into food or suffuse it in tea. ''We believe that patients consume it in the safest possible way,'' said Cripps-Prawak. ''And the only way they can determine this is by discussing it with their physician.''
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