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Editorials Has Health Canada oversight of medical marijuana gone to pot?

Shlomo Booklin with a cannabis seedling at Tilray a medical marijuana grow-op in Nanaimo August 14, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Medical marijuana is a legal drug in Canada. True, it is only supposed to be available to people with a doctor's prescription – but that can be said about hundreds of other pharmaceuticals. What's more, since there's no patent on pot, the easy-to-grow plant is really just a generic prescription drug. In Canada, all sorts of generic drugs are safely produced by drug companies, prescribed by doctors and sold by pharmacists. The system works.

Except when it comes to medical marijuana. A decade and a half after the Ontario Court of Appeal ordered the government to give access to pot to those in medical need, the matter is still not settled. The system is chaotic. Confusion reigns.

In response to the 2000 court decision, the government put in place new rules that essentially allowed some patients to grow their own drugs at home. In hindsight, this was probably not the ideal solution. Last year, Ottawa began to replace that problematic approach with one that sounds promising: Private businesses will be licensed to run grow-ops, producing legal, regulated, medical marijuana.

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It works for alcohol. It works for other drugs. So why is the marijuana industry still in such a state of flux? And why is federal oversight of it still such a mess?

Hundreds of companies have applied to produce medical marijuana. The licensing process has been slow, confusing and opaque. And the promise of riches for those who secure a government contract has opened the doors to stock-market speculation not seen since the dot.com era.

As uncovered in a recent Globe and Mail investigation, CEN Biotech, a U.S.-based company whose stock trades over the counter, made numerous false claims to investors. The company, which says it wants to open the country's biggest grow-op in southwestern Ontario, on multiple occasions publicly misrepresented its licence status with Health Canada and suggested it was being favoured by the government. Health Canada's response has been to do nothing. The application is apparently still in process. The regulator isn't regulating.

It should be possible – in fact, it should be easy – for medical marijuana to be effectively regulated, overseen, produced, prescribed and sold. It's what happens with every other drug. Why is Health Canada finding this so difficult?

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