The Sunshine Coast will be part of a nation-wide protest next Thursday against the federal government's proposed new medical marijuana regulations.
The regulations, set to take effect in just over a year, would end the current system that allows licensed patients or their designates to grow medical marijuana, replacing it with a prescription-based system that would shift all production to private companies operating under contract to Health Canada.
Spearheaded by the International Hempology 101 Society, the Feb. 21 nation-wide day of protest will target constituency offices of Conservative members of Parliament, including West Vancouver - Sunshine Coast - Sea to Sky Country MP John Weston. A rally is planned for 11 a.m. outside Weston's Sechelt office at 5760 Teredo St. in Trail Bay Mall.
"Bring a sign, come educate others, or come and be educated," said Eric Bills of Halfmoon Bay, who is supporting the day of protest.
The protest was timed to take place with a week left until Health Canada's Feb. 28 deadline for public comments on the proposed changes.
Bills, a lawyer from the U.S. who said he saw firsthand how the war on drugs was a failure, quoted Health Canada numbers that peg the cost for patients growing their own marijuana at between $1 and $2 per gram.
The cost per gram under the proposed commercial system will rise to $8.80.
"That's a huge increase for these people who often have AIDS, cancer or some other serious illness that keeps them from working," Bills said. "So now you're going to quadruple the price. It'll just create more illegal activity and bring in more organized crime."
The new system, he said, will also make it cost-prohibitive for patients to buy larger quantities to produce healthier edible products and avoid smoking the dried plant.
Patients or their designates who defy the new law and continue growing, he added, if caught would be facing possible mandatory minimum jail sentences.
Under the proposed new system, patients would be required to obtain a prescription from a doctor, but Health Canada has left it up to provinces and territories to decide whether nurse practitioners or pharmacists could also prescribe.
Asked if the B.C. government was considering those options, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said it was too early to say.
"We are currently working with Health Canada to better understand the implications of what the proposed changes will mean for B.C.," communications officer Laura Neufeld said. "We do have some concerns and questions at this point on what these changes will mean for physicians and other health professionals, on the potential cost to our provincial health system, and the potential implications for low-income licence holders, and we are working with Health Canada to address them."
Since the proposed changes are not scheduled to take effect until March 31, 2014, Neufeld added, the province "will have time to continue to work with Health Canada to ensure our concerns and questions are resolved, and to support an effective transition."
On Dec. 16, federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced the proposed changes, saying the current regulations leave the system open to abuse.
"We have heard real concerns from law enforcement, fire officials, and municipalities about how people are hiding behind these rules to conduct illegal activity, and putting health and safety of Canadians at risk. These changes will make it far more difficult for people to game the system," Aglukkaq said in a news release.
One of the intents of the new regulations is to eliminate the production of marijuana in people's homes, lowering the fire and security risks for neighbourhoods, she said. Approved grow operations will also have to adhere to municipal zoning laws.
While currently designated growers have the opportunity to apply to become contracted suppliers, the costs of rezoning and meeting Health Canada's security requirements "are going to be prohibitive for a lot of people," Bills said. "It's not nearly as good as people making reasonable decisions for their own needs."
Ottawa will stop producing and distributing marijuana if the changes go ahead, and while the cost will go up from the subsidized $5 per gram for patients who now access government pot, there will at least be more strains for them to choose from, Bills said.
Marijuana advocates are not the only ones opposing the new regulations. Both the Canadian Medical Association, representing Canada's 76,000 doctors, and the Canadian Pharmacists Association have publicly criticized the government's approach.
The proposed changes come at a time when medical marijuana authorizations have skyrocketed across the country.
Last year the number of licensed medical marijuana patients in Canada more than doubled from the previous year to 28,115, with almost half of authorized users - 13,362 - residing in B.C.
As of December, B.C. residents also accounted for about two-thirds of the designated growers under the federal program - 2,232 out of 3,405.
Comments to Health Canada can be sent by fax to 613-941-7240, by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail to Bureau of Medical Mari-huana Regulatory Reform, Controlled Substances and Tobacco Directorate, Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch, Health Canada, Address Locator: AL3503D Ottawa, ON K1A 0K9.
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