Jari Dvorak scored two ounces of pot Tuesday and lit up, but — unlike in the past — the deal involved no back alley exchange or hiding from police.
This time, the 62-year-old Dvorak went to a doctor to pick up his supply, making him one of the first patients to receive government-grown marijuana. He paid $245, tax included.
“I just smoked some and it’s doing the trick,” said the HIV-positive Dvorak, one of several hundred Canadians authorized to use medical marijuana for pain, nausea and other symptoms of catastrophic or chronic illness.
The program announced last month by the federal health department provides marijuana grown by the government in a former copper mine turned underground greenhouse in northern Manitoba.
Dvorak described his new stash as light green and orange in color, resembling ground tobacco sealed in vacuum-packed bags. If he saw some lying around, he said, “I would say that’s marijuana, especially if I sniff it.”
Getting it has been a three-year struggle for Dvorak and other Canadian patients who have battled through the courts to make the government respond to what they call their need for a compassionate exemption from criminal law.
Marijuana possession remains a crime in Canada, though the government has proposed making small amounts - less than half an ounce - punishable by a citation and fine similar to a traffic ticket. U.S. officials have warned of tighter border security if Canada takes that step.
Last month, Health Minister Anne McLellan announced the program to sell the government-grown weed, satisfying an Ontario court order for the government to make a legal supply available to authorized patients. The court ruling said current laws made “seriously ill, vulnerable people deal with the criminal underworld to get medicine.”
Under the program, qualified patients can get just over an ounce of dried pot for about $105, well below street prices. Authorized growers can buy packs of 30 seeds once a year for $15.
Dvorak’s supply came with something he never had seen - a content analysis. He noted the THC content was 10.2 percent, compared to the range of 3 percent to 18 percent in most street marijuana. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.
He smokes pot in the morning to soothe nausea from the HIV drugs he has taken for 15 years.
“I’m so happy the government is coming through with it,” Dvorak said. “Are they going to carry on with it? We’ll see.”
McLellan has called the initial program an interim measure to satisfy the court order while the government appeals the ruling.
Patients face winding road
Canada unveiled plans for medical marijuana in 2000 and began growing a supply in the abandoned mine shaft in Flin Flon, Manitoba. New regulations took effect on July 30, 2001, expanding the number of Canadians allowed to use medical marijuana and allowing people to grow their own or designate someone to grow it for them.
The regulations also cleared the way for distribution of the government-grown pot, but McLellan’s department later announced it needed further tests on the effects of medicinal marijuana and the quality of its pot before making any available.
That brought last year’s court ruling ordering the government to offer a legal supply instead of making patients buy off the street.
Medical marijuana users complain the Canadian system has been a bureaucratic maze intended to stifle the issue instead of providing pot to those who need it. While hundreds have received federal exemptions to grow and possess marijuana, others say it is hard to find doctors to sign off on their requests.
Dvorak described himself as lucky because his “compassionate” doctor understands the need. He refused to give the doctor’s name.
Nine U.S. states allow limited use of marijuana for medical purposes under the direction of a doctor.
The Bush administration has asked the Supreme Court to decide whether the government can strip a doctor’s license to prescribe drugs if medical marijuana is prescribed. It also has appealed a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that blocked the federal government from punishing doctors who prescribe medical marijuana.