Health Minister Allan Rock said Wednesday he has granted special exemptions from federal drug law to two Ontario men, Jim Wakeford and Jean-Charles Pariseau, both of whom have AIDS.
"This is about showing compassion to people, often dying, suffering from grave debilitating illness," Rock told Parliament.
He said the Health Department will invite bids from firms interested in supplying marijuana for use in upcoming clinical trials.
"I want a Canadian source," Rock said. "We're going to be putting the job out for tender to find someone who can grow us a reliable consistent quality for research purposes."
Many cancer patients and people with AIDS have said that marijuana, often obtained illegally, is able to relieve pain and nausea and to restore appetite. Other patients have used marijuana to combat glaucoma, the sight-robbing disease caused by a buildup of pressure in the eye. So far there is little solid scientific data to support those claims.
Rock said his department will fund clinical trials at several sites, initially using marijuana supplied by the U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse.
He said his department has received 30 applications from individuals wishing to use marijuana for medical purposes, and will process them quickly.
Despite the shift on medical usage of marijuana, federal laws against the drug remain in force and are applied, resulting in many convictions every year.
In the United States, the Clinton administration recently released new guidelines on May 21 to ease the availability of the drug for studies into its possible beneficial uses.
The guidelines will make it easier for academic researchers to obtain samples of research-grade marijuana grown by the government, said Campbell Gardett, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.
The White House Office of National Drug Policy endorsed the guidelines, saying in a statement, "This decision underscores the federal government's commitment to ensuring that the discussion of the medical efficacy and safety of cannabinoids takes place within the context of medicine and science."
Cannabinoids are substances produced by the marijuana plant, some of which cause psychological effects, such as changes in mood, motor coordination, cognitive ability and self-awareness.
The drug policy office, in the past, has resisted efforts by some groups to make medical marijuana more readily available, but officials at the agency insisted that the new directive was "not a reversal of policy."
In California, voters passed an initiative in 1996 that would allow patients to grow and use marijuana if their doctors prescribed it. The federal response was to warn that doctors could be penalized if they helped their patients get the drug.
Some federal scientists have conducted marijuna research in the past, but many academic and private researchers have complained of the difficulty of getting research-grade marijuana from tightly controlled government supplies.
The guidelines will ease the process, while assuring that the drug is available only to legitimate researchers, Gardett said.
In the last few months, committees of experts have recommended in two major studies a more extensive program of scientific research into marijuana.
Committees for both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Institutes of Health concluded there is evidence that marijuana can be useful in the treatment of some patients who have not responded well to other therapies.