OTTAWA - The Conservative government is forcing users of medical marijuana to choose between treating their symptoms or holding on to their freedoms under the Charter of Rights, a gathering of pot-smoking protesters complained Tuesday.
Several dozen demonstrators, some of them puffing on joints and vaporizers, gathered on Parliament Hill to protest the government's new medical-marijuana regulations on the very day they went into effect.
Among other things, the new rules require marijuana users to get their supply of the drug from commercial growers and prohibits them from growing their own, or growing it on behalf of other licensed users.
The regulations also impose limits on the amount of cannabis that licensed users can have in their possession.
Lawyer John Conroy won a Federal Court injunction last month that allows users to continue growing their own pot until a wider constitutional challenge of the regulations is heard — a ruling Health Canada says it plans to appeal.
But the courts have already determined that medically approved patients can use marijuana to relieve pain symptoms, said Conroy.
And as the case winds its way through the courts, proponents of the medicinal value of cannabis products are speaking out against the regulations.
"What Health Canada have done is forced patients to worry about our basic health maintenance versus our liberty," said Debbie Stultz Giffin, a medical-marijuana user diagnosed with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis.
Alison Myrden, who also lives with the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis, said she relies on medical pot every single day. The new regulations would mean a substantial increase in the cost of the drug, and potentially create supply problems as well, she said.
Ottawa is trying to take away the "God-given right" to grow cannabis to relieve pain symptoms, Myrden said.
It is unclear when the federal appeal of the injunction will be heard.
If the government ultimately fails to overturn the Federal Court decision, it will leave the path clear for the constitutional challenge. As a result, the matter could be tied up in the courts for many months to come.
The number of people authorized to possess — and frequently grow — marijuana under the old federal program climbed to 37,000 this year from fewer than 100 in 2001.
Several patients permitted to cultivate their own pot, or serve as a designated grower for someone else, say the planned new system denies ill Canadians a safe, affordable supply of medical marijuana.
Some say they can grow at home for pennies a gram, while official suppliers licensed by Health Canada charge anywhere from a discounted price of $3 a gram to as much as $13.50.
"It would cost me $60,000 (annually) to purchase cannabis through one of the licensed producers," said Stultz Giffin, a founder of a group of pot activists known as Maritimers Unite for Medical Marijuana.
"And I live on under $30,000 a year."