VANCOUVER – Patients who are currently licensed to grow their own pot will be permitted to continue producing the drug when new regulations take effect on April 1, a Federal Court judge ruled Friday.
Judge Michael Manson granted an application from a group of medical marijuana patients, who asked for a temporary injunction to preserve the status quo until a constitutional challenge of the new system can be heard.
The decision represents a major blow, at least in the short term, to the Conservative government’s attempt to overhaul this country’s medical marijuana system, which it says is rife with problems ranging from unsafe grow-ops to infiltration by criminals.
The new regulations restrict medical marijuana production to commercial growers, though the injunction does not affect the new licensing system.
Health Canada has warned any patient licensed to grow pot under the current rules must confirm they have destroyed their plants or they will be reported to the police.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue the updated regulations violate their right to access important medicine, because marijuana is expected to initially be more expensive under the new system. They also say they won’t have as much control over which strains of the drug they use.
During a hearing earlier this week, their lawyer said the patients would suffer “irreparable harm” if they weren’t granted an injunction, and they suggested the federal government has offered little concrete evidence that the medical marijuana system actually poses as many risks as it claims.
Canada first regulated medical marijuana in 2001, but only after the government was forced to do so by the courts. A year earlier, an Ontario court concluded the law at the time violated the rights of sick people who used pot to alleviate their symptoms.
The number of people authorized to possess — and often grow — marijuana has increased to 37,000 this year from fewer than 100 in 2001. The federal government says the current licences translate to about 3.5 million plants.
The Stephen Harper government announced a significant overhaul of the system last year and has since been accepting applications from commercial growers.
In this week’s court hearing, a government lawyer said there is no constitutional right to cheap medicine, and he argued there was no scientific evidence to show specific strains of marijuana are better suited to particular illnesses or patients.
While the injunction application didn’t specifically target the new commercial licensing regime, the government argued that allowing some patients to continue growing their own pot would prevent the fledgling medical marijuana industry from fully developing.
It’s not clear when the patients’ legal challenge will go to trial.
A federal government lawyer told the court this week that a trial could be scheduled for early next year, though the judge suggested the case could be heard earlier than that.