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Constitutional challenge of Canada's medical marijuana laws begins in Vancouver

A constitutional challenge of Canada's new medical marijuana laws will hear from marijuana law experts from Holland, Israel and the U.S. when it begins Monday in Vancouver.

The expert witnesses will include Robert Mikos, a law professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville; Dr. Yehuda Baruch, the former head of Israel’s Medical Use of Cannabis Program; and Catherine Sandvos, an official with the Netherlands Office of Medicinal Marijuana.

Also on the witness list is Paul Grootendorst, a health economics expert at the University of Toronto, and Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis.

The fire chief is a witness for the defence – the Attorney General of Canada – who will testify about the dangers of marijuana grow operations.

The federal court challenge aims to strike down the current law, known as the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR).

“If we win the case, people will be allowed to continue to grow,” said lawyer John Conroy, who is representing four medical marijuana patients.

“We’re saying the MMPR is unconstitutional because it fails to allow the patient to continue to grow marijuana or have a caregiver grow it for them,” he told Metro.

“We support proper legal grows that are inspected,” Conroy said, adding some growers with personal production licences prefer growing pot outside in their gardens, which poses a minimal risk.

The Federal Court judge hearing the challenge already granted the plaintiffs an injunction on March 21 last year to allow patients to continue growing their own pot if they were already licenced to do so.

The new law was introduced in June 2013 and was fully implemented after a transition period that ended on March 31, 2014.

The MMPR replaced the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR), which had allowed patients with a doctor’s approval to obtain a Health Canada exemption to possess and grow marijuana, or have another person grow it for them.

The new law requires that patients buy their medicine from a commercial Licenced Producer approved by the federal government.

Last October, there were only 13 companies approved to commercial grow medical marijuana. But the government has been receiving 25 new applications a week.

It also led to the sudden increase in medical marijuana dispensaries, which are illegal but have sprouted up all over the Vancouver area and cities across Canada.

The four plaintiffs involved in the legal challenge – Neil Allard. Tanya Beemish, David Hebert and Shawn Davey -- claim that the price of marijuana from commercial growers is between $8 to $12 a gram, which is comparable to the price on the illegal black market, often controlled by criminal gangs, while the cost is $1 to $4 a gram to grow your own.

Conroy will argue that patients who can't afford the medicine prices under the new program are being placed in a position where they have to choose between their liberty and their health.

One of the government’s experts, Grootendorst, said in a court affidavit that the price of medical marijuana is expected to drop over time from state-sanctioned commercial growers.

But if patients were exempted from buying from commercial Licenced Producers, the price may increase over time, he said, and if the number of medical marijuana users buying commercially-produced pot is very low, it’s possible the commercial growers would no longer produce their product.

The case will also challenge the constitutionality of the limits the MMPR placed on the amount of medical marijuana that can be possessed and stored -- a person cannot possess, store or transport more than 30 times their approved daily dose or a maximum of 150 grams, whichever is less.

The outcome of the case could affect about 40,000 people across Canada who have authorizations to possess medical marijuana, with about 24,000 of those holding Personal Use Production Licences when the lawsuit was filed in 2013, and another 4,250 relying on a “designated grower” to produce medical marijuana for the patient.

Health Canada estimates there are 500,000 medical marijuana users in Canada over the age of 25, and the number of licenced registered users will grow to 400,000 by 2022.

The trial will hear testimony about how the U.S. has grappled with issue of supplying medical marijuana in the 35 states where it is legal, including three states where the only supply is growing your own.

Although the trend in the U.S. is moving toward having commercialized cultivation centres sanctioned by the state, there are still five U.S. states having no state-approved supply of medical marijuana.

In Colorado, there were more than 113,000 registered medical marijuana users in August 2014, roughly two per cent of the state’s population.

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