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Medical pot program 'seriously compromised'

Marijuana clone plants that are used to grow medical marijuana are displayed under a light, at The Joint, a medical marijuana cooperative in Seattle, Oct.16, 2013. The federal government says the unforeseen growth of its medical marijuana program has
Marijuana clone plants that are used to grow medical marijuana are displayed under a light, at The Joint, a medical marijuana cooperative in Seattle, Oct.16, 2013. The federal government says the unforeseen growth of its medical marijuana program has 'seriously compromised' the goal of providing the drug to patients while ensuring public safety. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Ted S. Warren
— image credit: Photo for: Medical pot program 'seriously compromised'

OTTAWA - The unforeseen growth of the federal medical marijuana program has "seriously compromised" the goal of providing the drug to patients while ensuring public safety, the government says.

The number of people authorized to possess — and often grow — marijuana under the federal program has risen to 37,000 this year from fewer than 100 in 2001, resulting in "significant unintended consequences."

In a court document defending imminent changes to the program, the government says growing marijuana at home poses hazards including mould, fire, toxic chemicals and the threat of home invasion by criminals.

It says the number of licensed users could climb as high as 400,000, adding it is not possible for Health Canada to effectively inspect tens of thousands of production sites across the country.

The government also rejects legal arguments that denying people the right to produce their own pot would violate their Charter of Rights guarantee of "security of the person."

Under the existing program, people are issued licences to cultivate marijuana for personal use to help ease painful symptoms. Beginning April 1, the government plans to allow only select commercial producers to grow marijuana under "secure and sanitary conditions" for distribution to approved patients by mail.

Several British Columbia residents are asking the Federal Court of Canada for an injunction that would allow them to continue producing their own pot or have a designated person do so for them.

They argue the planned new system would deny them a safe, affordable supply of the particular strain of marijuana that meets their medical needs.

"I would no longer have quality control assurance over my organically grown cannabis herbs and fear that my safe access to medical cannabis will be essentially compromised," one man behind the legal action, Neil Allard of Abbotsford, B.C., says in a court filing.

In its submission, the government says the new system would allow people who currently grow their own pot to sell seeds to a licensed producer, making it possible for that producer to cultivate a patient's "preferred strain."

As of late January, about 70 strains of medical marijuana were available from licensed producers for as little as $5 a gram, with some offering discounts for low-income individuals, the government says.

Allard says paying even $5 a gram for pot would consume more than his monthly income.

In its filing, the government allows that the cost of marijuana may initially increase for those who now produce their own, but says "that cost is likely to decrease significantly over time" as a result of competition, economies of scale, lower fees for skilled labour and technological innovation.

Federal lawyers also dismiss the challengers' key constitutional argument.

"The rights to life and security of the person do not encompass a right to produce one's own medication in order to avoid the cost of purchasing commercially available equivalents."

The court documents say Health Canada expects more than 20 producers will be licensed to produce marijuana for medical purposes.

In addition, the department has purchased a "significant quantity" of overstock marijuana from a private company in case of a supply shortfall during the transition period.

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