Mark Ware was working with patients suffering from a painful blood disease in the late 1990s when he noticed that many of them were self-medicating. The sickle cell anemia research clinic where he was working was in Jamaica, and the pain reliever of choice for a growing number of his patients was cannabis.
The episode put the British-born, Jamaica-raised doctor on the path that has made him a world-renowned expert on the use of cannabis in pain management.
Now based at McGill University in Montreal, Dr. Ware will turn his attention in coming months to the use of marijuana for recreational purposes. As a key member of a new task force, he will help the federal government to create a legal regime for all adult pot users.
"The next six months will be a fascinating journey in understanding a different aspect of cannabis regulation than the medical model," he said recently in his first media interview since being named vice-chair of the task force.
The government called on former Liberal cabinet minister Anne McLellan last month to lead a nine-member task force on marijuana legalization and regulation. She was hired because of her political know-how and the expertise she gained as a minister of health, justice and public safety in the 1990s and 2000s.
The panel will provide its findings to the government and the public by November, with new legislation to come in the spring of 2017.
Dr. Ware, who was brought in as one of Canada's foremost experts on the science behind marijuana, said he does not believe that cannabis is a "panacea" as a medical drug. He also said there should be strict controls on the quality and potency of recreational marijuana, especially as Canada starts research on the long-term impact of legalization.
"Under a regulated, non-medical model, the opportunity stands to learn in a much more informed way what is the true picture of cannabis use and its impact on health," Dr. Ware said. "Unquestionably, from a medical standpoint, it's crucial for patients using any drug that they know its origins, its quality, its potency."
The issues that remain to be determined are numerous: Who will have the right to produce marijuana for recreational purposes; how will the product be distributed and sold; and what type of research will be needed to ensure that legalization meets the government's public-health objectives?
The overarching question is whether the government will opt for a strongly regulated system that allows only a few producers and tightly controlled sellers, or whether it will allow home growers and a wide variety of dispensaries across the country.
While the task force's final decisions are still months down the road, the background of the nine members on the panel suggests they will recommend a regime that will be more restrictive than liberal.
Another task force member, Catherine Zahn of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said the group will discuss regulations for issues such as the growth and production of marijuana, the minimum age for buyers and the allowable concentration of active ingredients in legal products.
CAMH issued a key report in 2014 that called for the legalization of marijuana in order to offer better protection to young users, frequent users and those suffering from mental illness.
"We know that like alcohol, like cigarettes, like gambling, there are individuals who may be at risk for more harms," Dr. Zahn said in an interview.
Dr. Ware agreed on the need to place limits on the accessibility of the drug to protect the overall health of Canadians. In his research on marijuana for medical purposes, he studied the different uses for the drug and its effects on issues such as neuropathic pain. He concluded that the health effects related to the regular consumption of marijuana are not a cause for major alarm.
"In a nutshell, the side effects that we found were not unexpected; they were mostly mild to moderate in terms of severity," Dr. Ware said.
Members of the committee state they are approaching the debate with an open mind. When the task force was announced, Ms. McLellan said her group would consult with all levels of government, as well as "youth and experts in relevant fields such as health care, substance abuse, criminal justice, law enforcement, economics, industry and those groups with expertise in sales, production and distribution."
Dr. Zahn said the task force is looking forward to finding out the pros and cons of various legalization efforts around the world. Dr. Ware added that the government has received more than 20,000 submissions from across the country, showcasing how Canadians are taking the continuing process to heart.