Last Thursday, Tom Shapiro walked into the Regina Police department, where he had recently been detained for possession of drugs. He walked out with two large bags of dried marijuana.

Shapiro, who is infected with AIDS, has used marijuana for the last five years to alleviate the nausea that is a side-effect of his medication. His large, medically-sanctioned supply of marijuana was returned to him legally on March 2.

Police seized his basement full of plants on January 31; his permit to grow and possess marijuana had expired in October. Shapiro said that he had applied to renew it before it expired, but it was late coming in the mail and he lost status as a legal user. Tipped off by his electricity bill, police entered his Regina home and seized 21 plants.

“Health Canada said I’m not on the list, so I must be illegal,” Shapiro said. He added that he believed the police did undue damage to his property in seizing the plants.

Shapiro said that the police treated him as they would any illegal grow operation.

He was taken to jail, fingerprinted, charged with growing marijuana contrary to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and set with a court date of March 7, but he was released when his renewed permit arrived on February 2. The charges against him were dropped, but Shapiro’s drugs could not be returned to him until the confusion over his permit could be solved.

Medical marijuana is subject to the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations Act, brought into effect by Health Canada on July 30, 2001. The regulations explain: authorization to possess usable marijuana, to grow it or have someone else grow it for you, and the legal provisions for purchasing marijuana.

Two categories of people have access to medical marijuana. Those suffering from multiple sclerosis, a spinal cord injury or disease, severe pain or inability to eat as a result of cancer or HIV/AIDS, arthritis or epilepsy fall into category 1, while others who experience chronic pain can also apply for access to the drug, falling into category 2.

In December 2000, Health Canada contracted Prairie Plant Systems to grow marijuana in Flin Flon, MB.

Shapiro noted that overgrow.com, the website from which many medical marijuana users purchased seeds, was seized by police in Quebec.

Christopher Williams, a spokesperson for Health Canada, said that there are three ways to access medical marijuana: it can be purchased from the government, patients can seek a licence to grow it themselves, or they can use a third party grower.

He noted that the average approval time for a permit to possess medical marijuana is about 15 working days, though Health Canada advises patients to start the application process six weeks in advance of their licence’s expiration date.

Shapiro said that he was concerned about the quality of the marijuana returned to him by the police — it may not be “smokable,” which would mean he would have to start growing it again or purchase the Health Canada product, which he said is too expensive. He said that many medical marijuana users spend more than half of their disability compensation on the treatment.

Currently, there are 1,186 users of medical marijuana in Canada, and Health Canada has authorized 859 licences to cultivate the plant for medical purposes.

A pilot project aims to distribute marijuana in pharmacies across Canada — in multiple provinces and both rural and urban areas — but is still in the planning stages.

Williams noted that Health Canada’s “compassionate” approach to medical marijuana is unique internationally.

“It’s important to remember that it’s not an approved drug, and nowhere in the world has it gone through the clinical trials, and nowhere in the world is it a prescribed drug,” Williams said.

Even so, Shapiro said that Health Canada, acting in the best interests of patients, should make medical marijuana more readily available. He has suggested improvements to the list system, including providing temporary licences and not removing patients from the “approved” list immediately after permits expire.

“If it works for a person . . . they shouldn’t bar access to it.”

He added that he thinks Canadians support better availability for medical marijuana.

“I don’t know why they would give someone something and then take it away,” said Shapiro. “They’re as bad as any dealer on the street.”