VANCOUVER -- Ottawa's decision to snuff its role in dispensing medical marijuana has ignited a debate over how the move will affect public health and safety.
A range of groups, including those representing law enforcement officials, physicians and medical cannabis advocates, were reacting Sunday after the federal health ministry announced it will stop producing and distributing medicinal pot in favour of opening the market to private companies.
The current program has allowed anyone with a government permit to grow it themselves, including in their homes. But the Conservatives argue that with 26,000 permits handed out over the past decade, the system has become unwieldy and resulted in "unintended consequences."
"We have heard real concerns from law enforcement, fire officials and municipalities about how people are hiding behind these rules to conduct illegal activity," Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said in a release.
The government intends to implement changes by March 31, 2014, that will do away with the system of individual permits so only companies meeting security requirements can grow and sell the drug.
The move has drawn criticism from a number of sides, and not everyone against the changes supports the use of medical marijuana.
Doctors represented by the Canadian Medical Association used harsh words against the new policy, arguing the government is abdicating its role as regulator.
"There's huge potential for harm to patients, and the federal government's decision is equivalent to asking doctors to prescribe while blindfolded," CMA president Dr. Anna Reid said.
Reid said the decision does not put patients first, while leaving doctors to deal with a substance that has little clinical evidence to back its use.
She said the strains of pot being produced today are much more powerful than in the past and have not been rigorously tested.
Meanwhile, a not-for-profit organization that supports cannabis dispensaries in communities said it is reluctant to endorse the change because it means the drug remains unaffordable to those who need it.
The Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries "remains concerned that patients will continue facing barriers to access," president Rade Kovacevic said.
He cited research showing more than 50 per cent of medical marijuana users currently obtain their medicine through dispensaries.
Putting production in the hands of companies will mean the government will no longer subsidize the cost, which had been upwards of $5 a gram. Under the new system, the cost will rise to $8.80 a gram.
Another grassroots coalition is seeking support for a legal challenge of the changes, setting up a trust fund and campaigning to bring anyone who holds a medical-marijuana licence on board.
The coalition's co-founder, Jason Wilcox, argues all people should have not only the right to access affordable, quality cannabis for medical use, but also be able to legally produce it.
Associations representing Canadian fire chiefs and police chiefs support the changes.
Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu, who heads the chiefs of police association, said the changes are "necessary to reduce the risk of abuse and exploitation" by criminals seeking to make a profit.
Stephen Gamble, who heads the fire chiefs' association, noted one in 22 grow-ops catch fire, 24 times more frequently than the average home.
The government said it's making the changes after a broad consultation process. It is accepting public comment for 75 days.
Patients who want to use marijuana as medical treatment after the changes come into effect will sign a medical document similar to a prescription, which they can then take to authorized vendors for purchase.
-- The Canadian Press