Thursday, March 4, 1999



Mr. Bernard Bigras (Rosemont, BQ) >moved:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should undertake all necessary steps to legalize the use of marijuana for health and medical purposes.

He said: Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to be the first elected member of the House of Commons to speak, not just today in this debate, but in the history of the House of Commons, on this vital matter of the legalization of marijuana for health and medical purposes.

Marijuana has been used medicinally throughout the world for thousands of years. Today many patients, particularly those suffering from cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and other diseases, testify to the marked relief they obtain from inhaling marijuana.

The therapeutic use of marijuana is, however, still banned by the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and users are liable to a six-month prison sentence and a $1000 fine.

With a view to changing this unacceptable situation, I introduced a motion one year ago in favour of the legalization of marijuana for health and medical purposes. For me, this is a matter of compassion toward sick people suffering from nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, and other major discomforts which accompany a number of chronic diseases.

[.] 1720 [+] [-]

My motion is simple and unequivocal. It reads as follows:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should undertake all necessary steps to legalize the use of marijuana for health and medical purposes.

In my opinion, it is unacceptable for a person with a chronic condition, or a terminally ill AIDS patient, to be liable for six months in prison and a $10,000 fine for using a medical treatment recommended by his or her physician

In this connection, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act is totally devoid of understanding and compassion toward the chronically ill, who want nothing more than to live in dignity. This act must be changed as soon as possible, in order to allow the medical use of marijuana by those who need it.The Ontario court has already found part of the Narcotic Control Act to be unconstitutional. Clearly, the ball is now in our court here in the House of Commons.

We have been elected to fulfill a role as legislators. We have no right to let the courts decided in our stead. We must now assume our responsibility as elected representatives by inviting the federal government to pass concrete measures without delay that will allow the therapeutic use of


At the present time, the only parliamentary approach that can achieve this is to give solid support to Motion M-381, which we are debating here today for the first time, and which calls upon the government to "undertake all necessary steps to legalize the use of marijuana for health and medical purposes'. The situation is urgent. For those who suffer, every day counts.

My position in favour of the legalization of marijuana for therapeutic purposes was not formed yesterday. I was first made aware of this injustice by my constituents, who urged me to take a public position in favour of legalizing marijuana for health and medical purposes.

Last March 6, I publicly supported a proposal along these lines by young delegates to the Bloc Quebecois youth forum. I am happy that this proposal was passed unanimously at the time by forum delegates. The proposal called on the Bloc Quebecois to take a stand in favour of the therapeutic use of marijuana and urged its parliamentary wing to follow up.

Delegates were very happy to hear our leader, the member for Laurier Sainte-Marie, support their proposal in his closing address to the conference. Two weeks later, I followed up with the motion we are debating

for the first time today.

This is not a new debate. The media and the courts have been looking at this issue for some time now. Doctors are discussing it with each other, and criminologists and patient advocacy groups are giving it thought. It is a topic that has been of interest to many people except, until today, members of the House of Commons. Now, since this debate will be followed by a vote, each of us here in the House will have an opportunity to take a clear stand on the issue. This is, in our view, a simple issue of transparency.

Until now, every time the issue of legalizing the therapeutic use of marijuana came up, the Minister of Health or the Minister of Justice tried to duck it. Their answer was always that they were open to the issue, their officials were studying it, and they hoped to be able to announce a plan or something more specific in a few months' time, all the while hoping that the issue would go away.

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They say the same thing the next time the question comes up. This was what they did last year when an Ontario court judge ruled that a section of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act was unconstitutional.

It was what they said when an AIDS sufferer from the Outaouais and his physician asked the government to take action on this issue. It is also what the Minister of Health and the Minister of Justice told me when I put the question to them here in the House one year ago on March 10 and 23, 1998.

Yesterday, it was the usual scenario. On the eve of the first day of debate on the motion that marijuana be legalized for medical purposes, the Minister of Health suddenly feels a need to demonstrate compassion towards the chronically ill.

What does he do to help? He announces that he will ask his officials to prepare a plan to draw up guidelines for eventual legalization of marijuana for medical use. I repeat: he announces that he will once again ask his officials to prepare a plan to draw up guidelines for eventual legalization of marijuana for medical use.

What have the officials the minister asked to look into this issue last year been doing? What do they have to show for their research? Only the minister knows.

Yesterday, the Minister of Health took a step in the right direction, and I said so yesterday. He deserves credit. He has announced that he will be asking these same departmental employees to draw up an action plan with a view to legalizing the therapeutic use of marijuana. Hence we now know the mandate he claims to have given to his staff.

How can we have any faith in his words when, in the past, the minister's actions did not fall in line with his commitments? Why did the minister announce a policy of openness but still no precise timeframe or concrete measures to achieve the legal use of marijuana for health and therapeutic purposes? Once again, his actions denote a lack of transparency. What is more, this new policy smacks of last-minute improvisation by the minister. He rushed to give his people a mandate just as the issue was about to be


Ms. Elinor Caplan: Not true.

Mr. Bernard Bigras: I hear the parliamentary secretary over there taking the liberty to react to what I am saying.

The parliamentary secretary ought to be familiar with the demands by the Canadian AIDS Society. She ought to be familiar with the position of the Canadian Hemophilia Society, which has been tabled today. She ought to be familiar with the positions of Donald Kilby, director of the University of Ottawa Health Services. And of RTjean Thomas, a leading figure in the treatment of AIDS. And she ought to be familiar with the case of James Wakeford, who has made a request under the special access program. With the

cases of Jean-Charles Parizeau and Terry Parker. But no, the parliamentary secretary does not want to know.

The minister's new policy smacks of improvisation, as I have said.

He has given a hasty mandate to his departmental employees on the eve of a debate on the matter, but is unable to give any details on his policy. In fact, the minister cannot even say whether his announcement means that he is taking the necessary steps to legalize the health and medical use of marijuana.

[.] 1730 [+] [-]

That is exactly what today's motion is calling for. The minister is still refusing to say whether he will vote for or against the motion. I hope that we can clarify his intentions in the course of debate.

If the minister said yesterday that he was prepared to take steps towards legalization, the only course open to him in June is to vote in favour. Any move by the government to vote against this motion will be interpreted by those favouring the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes as unwillingness to keep this promise.

I repeat, the government and the minister must demonstrate in good faith. I grant that he has taken a step in the right direction, but his actions must suit his words, and he must vote in favour of the motion.

In fact, the minister is certainly not yet able to tell us what stand he will take. We are still waiting, and would have liked an announcement yesterday as to where he stood. But instead we must wait.

I was in touch by phone as recently as yesterday with patients, doctors, and associations asking me to continue the fight, because nothing is a given, because although there was an announcement yesterday, no timeframe was mentioned. There was no research protocol. We know that there is no indication whatsoever that the minister listens to patients, for instance those who have made applications under the Health Canada special access program, which is the minister's own responsibility.

I therefore wish to assure everyone, not only in this House, but everyone involved in the campaign, the physicians, the patients, that I will continue the awareness campaign I launched this morning.

I wish to assure them that this lack of transparency can only make me step up the pressure so that a majority of MPs here in this House will be able to vote in favour of this motion. The government has no excuse whatsoever for taking refuge behind inaction, as it has so far.

No one disputes the therapeutic effectiveness of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal active ingredient in marijuana. Moreover, physicians can already prescribe Marinol tablets, and have been

doing so for some years now. This authorized medication contains synthetic THC and is already available in pharmacies. It is prescribed mainly to relieve nausea in terminally ill patients and to stimulate appetite.

However, taking synthetic marijuana pills is not as effective as inhalation. According to the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, swallowing pills cannot be compared to inhalation, which rapidly raises blood THC levels and greatly enhances the sought-after medical efficacy.

What is more, many patients who would be candidates for the medical use of marijuana are already required to take huge numbers of pills daily. We are talking of numbers even in excess of 30. One can imagine what taking more pills in the form of Marinol means, then. The precise purpose of marijuana is to help make the taking of so many pills bearable by relieving nausea.

Obviously, it is better to administer THC for nausea by the pulmonary route than the digestive route. Many physicians are therefore campaigning for the possibility of prescribing THC in the form best suited to their patients. They argue that they are in the best position to determine what suits their patients best.

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The Canadian Medical Association represents the medical community in Canada and ensures that the health care system provides doctors with what they need to deliver quality health care to their patients. Since 1981, this association has been arguing that the simple possession of marijuana should be decriminalized, but it deplores the absence of more systematic scientific research on the topic.

In 1995, the American Medical Association pointed out the need to review American legislation on the therapeutic use of marijuana. The British Medical Association goes even further: it has called on the British

government to take all necessary steps to authorize the therapeutic use of marijuana, while respecting all established scientific criteria.

The British Medical Association has also publicly encouraged the police and the courts to tolerate use of marijuana for therapeutic purposes. In its report, it says, and I quote:

Some patients are forced to use an illegal drug to relieve symptoms that are not controlled by existing medication.

The report also says:

and that there is sufficient evidence that marijuana can help in certain circumstances.

These were quotes from a report by the British Medical Association.

As a result, following a major scientific research study by the British House of Lords, the British government decided to go ahead and authorize the first official trials to evaluate the therapeutic effects of marijuana. The Royal Pharmaceutical Society is confident that, three years from now, cannabis will be a prescription drug in Great Britain.

In Quebec and in Canada, well known physicians such as RTjean Thomas and Donald Kilby have already come down unambiguously in favour of legalization for medical and therapeutic purposes, as have some major dailies. So have the Canadian AIDS Society, the Canadian Hemophilia Society, which wrote me

another letter this morning, and the Coalition des organismes communautaires quTbTcois de lutte contre le sida. All these organizations are calling on the government and members of parliament to vote in favour

of Motion M-381.

Today, I ask the men and women fighting for this legalization to be patient, because I am very confident that they will have all the support they need in June. Therefore

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault): I am sorry to interrupt the hon. member, but his time is up.

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