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Questions ahead as feds pave way for more on service dogs for vets with PTSD

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OTTAWA — Heads turn and smiles break out as the four veterans make their way through the Bayshore mall in Ottawa’s west end one recent Tuesday morning. But it isn’t just the men that the shoppers are watching: it’s also their dogs.

A little-noticed promise in the most recent federal budget has sparked applause and sighs of relief from veterans across Canada dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological trauma.

The commitment was to add “psychiatric service dogs” to the list of medical items that Canadians can claim as a tax credit on income-tax forms, as is already the case with guide dogs for the blind.

The move follows the recent results of a government-commissioned study that indicated — as many veterans and advocacy groups had long claimed — that dogs can go a long way in helping those suffering from invisible injuries.

“He lowers my anxiety. He gets me out of the house,” says Dwayne Sawyer of his service dog, a golden Labrador named Rex who has been helping the 22-year veteran with his PTSD.

Rex sits at Sawyer’s feet as shoppers walk by.

“I have to look after him, which makes me have to get up and do stuff. Prior to that, I wasn’t getting out of bed. And if we’re in a mall situation and he can feel my anxiety, he gets really cuddly and he gets right up into me.”

Yet the answer to one big question is still being worked on: What, precisely, qualifies as a psychiatric service dog?

The idea of using service dogs to treat and support veterans and others suffering from PTSD has been around for a few years, but was largely disregarded by the federal government until May 2014.

That is when then-veterans affairs minister Julian Fantino pledged up to $500,000 for a two-and-a-half year study to assess the benefits — and risks — of such dogs, with an eye to whether their use should be encouraged and expanded.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press show the study was delayed because of “recruitment and retention issues of both trained psychiatric service dogs and veterans,” but a preliminary report was recently published.

The findings: Three months after they were obtained, service dogs were found to have “some positive effects” on  veterans’ ability to sleep as well as to manage their PTSD and depression.

The study could not confirm whether service dogs were linked to improved quality of life or more movement in the community, but the overall results were nonetheless deemed “really promising.”

A final report is expected this summer, but the Trudeau government opted not to wait and instead promised in last month’s budget to expand the medical expense tax credit to include psychiatric service dogs.

“The efficacy study has still not been concluded, but it looks really good and enough veterans have told us what a difference this makes to them,” Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan said in an interview.

“PTSD is something that we are all still literally getting our heads around, but you build up a critical enough mass of veterans who are saying this is making such a difference to them, we’ll go with it.”

But there was another thing the government decided it didn’t need to wait for, even though veterans and trainers are the first to say it will pose a challenge: developing a national standard for the service dogs.

That effort, which covers all types of service canines including guide dogs and those for children with autism, has been in the works almost three years — and proven controversial and divisive.

The concern is that dogs that aren’t properly trained will misbehave in public, including jumping at people or otherwise disrupting businesses and making it more difficult for legitimate owners to be accepted.

“You’ve got dogs coming in that aren’t necessarily safe,” said Danielle Forbes, executive director of National Service Dogs in Cambridge, Ont., which is accredited by Assistance Dogs International.

“We get calls from businesses all the time wanting to know what their rights are because they’ve got a dog threatening their staff or their other customers.”

There is also the fear that fake breeders will take advantage of veterans and others, who can expect to shell out thousands of dollars for a trained service dog unless they are lucky enough to be supported by a local organization.

Alberta and British Columbia have adopted their own standards, which a dog must meet before those provinces issue a card that lets owners take the service animal into businesses and other places.

The federal government has been working on a national service-dog standard for nearly three years, but it has so far failed to come up with an acceptable framework.

A first draft released by the Canadian General Standards Board was greeted with anger and frustration from various segments of the community, but especially guide-dog users and the schools that train them.

They argued the proposed rules would force schools to either change their time-tested training programs or possibly stop serving Canadian students altogether. Others felt the draft was too broad and tried to do too many things.

“Each organization, let’s say the service dog for epilepsy, they want their own thing. The service dogs for the blind, they want their own thing,” said Serge Lemieux, vice-president of the Canadian Veteran Service Dog Unit in Ottawa.

“So it’s becoming so wide and broad that it was difficult to keep it in scope. Once they can define the requirement of what service dogs are, what they provide, and agree on the document, then I think we can move forward.”

A second draft has been developed and consultations are planned for this summer, and most are hoping for a better result this time around, especially given the need; Lemieux said his organization has 40 veterans waiting for a dog.

Sawyer is only too happy to have found Rex through the Canadian Veteran Service Dog Unit. And he hopes the government’s plan to give tax credits for such dogs makes them more accessible to other veterans in need.

“He’s my buddy. He’s the reason why I wake up in the morning and get out of the house,” said Sawyer. “So what the government’s done, that’s amazing. I think it’s a great initiative, a great step forward.”

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press



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Feds will make marijuana legal in Canada on Oct. 17, Trudeau says

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OTTAWA — Canadians will be able to legally purchase and consume recreational marijuana as of Oct. 17 — one month later than expected.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the date Wednesday during question period in the House of Commons, which is expected to end the day by rising for a three-month summer break.

Trudeau said the government delayed the timetable for lifting the almost century-old prohibition on marijuana at the request of larger provinces, including Quebec, which asked for more time to make the transition to a legal regime for regulating the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis.

On Tuesday, the Senate approved Bill C-45, the bill establishing the new legal regime, after seven months of intensive study and debate.

Senators also dropped their insistence on amendments to the bill, most notably one that would have authorized provincials and territorial governments to prohibit the home cultivation of marijuana plants if they choose.

On Wednesday, Trudeau and his ministers were basking in the glow of finally delivering on one of the Liberals’ biggest campaign promises in 2015.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould called the legislation — which still requires royal assent to become law — “transformative.”

“C-45 marks a wholesale shift in how our country approaches cannabis,” she said.

“It leaves behind a failed model of prohibition, a model that has made organized crime rich and left our young people vulnerable. In its place we will have a new system that will give adults the opportunity to purchase and consume cannabis legally from authorized suppliers.

“Most importantly, our shift in policy will protect youth from the health and safety risks of cannabis and keep those same criminals from profiting from its production, distribution and sale.”

Still, Wilson-Raybould stressed that pot remains illegal in Canada until the new law goes into effect in October.

“I urge all Canadians to continue to follow the existing law until the Cannabis Act comes into force,” she told a news conference.

Bill C-46, a companion bill that Wilson-Raybould predicts will give Canada the strongest impaired-driving rules in the world, is also expected to be passed in the next day or two by the Senate.

Until then, Wilson-Raybould said: “I would like to also remind the public that driving while impaired by drugs is, and will remain, illegal.”

It was clear, however, that there are still more questions than answers about what Canada’s nascent legal-pot landscape will look like — how police will test motorists, what to do about those with prior marijuana convictions and just how the rules governing home cultivation will work.

Quebec, Manitoba and Nunavut have already decided to ban home-grown weed, despite the fact that the new federal law stipulates that individuals may grow up to four plants per dwelling.

Wilson-Raybould said the federal government has no intention of challenging provincial bans on home-grown pot but she noted that some individuals may well launch legal challenges.

In the Commons, New Democrat MP Don Davies attempted to pass a motion calling on the government to immediately pardon Canadians convicted of simple cannabis possession — something that will no longer be a crime as of Oct. 17. The motion did not muster the necessary unanimous consent.

Trudeau has strongly hinted that pardons are likely but he has resolutely refused to go down that path before the law is changed.

“We recognize that anyone who is currently purchasing marijuana is participating in illegal activity that is funding criminal organizations and street gangs,” he said in January.

“And therefore we do not want to encourage in any way people to engage in that behaviour until the law is changed.”

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press




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Pot to be legal by mid-September after senators pass pot legalization bill

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OTTAWA — Canadians will be able to legally purchase and consume recreational marijuana by mid-September at the latest after the Senate voted Tuesday to lift almost a century-old prohibition on cannabis.

Senators voted 52-29, with two abstentions, to pass Bill C-45, after seven months of study and debate.

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor has said the provinces will need two to three months after the bill is passed before they’ll be ready to implement the new legalized cannabis regime.

“We have seen in the Senate tonight a historic vote that ends 90 years of prohibition of cannabis in this country, 90 years of needless criminalization, 90 years of a just-say-no approach to drugs that hasn’t worked,” said independent Sen. Tony Dean, who sponsored the bill in the upper house.

Canada is the first industrialized country to legalize cannabis nationwide.

“I’m proud of Canada today. This is progressive social policy,” Dean said.

However, Dean and other senators stressed that the government is taking a very cautious, prudent approach to this historic change. Cannabis will be strictly regulated, with the objective of keeping it out of the hands of young people and displacing the thriving black market in cannabis controlled by organized crime.

“What the government’s approach has been is, yes, legalization but also strict control,” said Sen. Peter Harder, the government’s representative in the Senate.

“That does not in any way suggest that it’s now party time.”

Conservative senators remained resolutely opposed to legalization, however, and predicted passage of C-45 will not meet the government’s objectives.

“The impact is we’re going to have all those involved in illegal marijuana peddling right now becoming large corporations and making a lot of money and they’re going to be doing it at the expense of vulnerable people in this country,” said Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos, predicting young people will have more — not less — access.

“When you normalize the use of marijuana and you’re a young person and you had certain reservations because of the simple fact that it was illegal, there’s, I believe, a propensity to have somebody be more inclined to use it.”

But Dean countered that the Conservatives have been making the same argument since the bill landed in the Senate seven months ago, regardless of what they heard from expert witnesses. And he suggested that’s because they received marching orders from Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to do everything in their power to delay or block legalization.

“That tells me that maybe they haven’t been open to learning and listening the way that other senators have in this place,” he said of the Conservatives’ unchanging position on the bill.

By contrast, Dean said many independent senators were initially opposed to or uncertain about legalization but changed their minds after hearing from more than 200 expert witnesses who testified before five different Senate committees that examined the bill minutely.

The Conservatives are the last remaining openly partisan group in the Senate, to which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has chosen to name only non-partisan, independent senators recommended by an arm’s-length advisory body.

Senators last week approved almost four dozen amendments to C-45. The government accepted 27 of them and tweaked two others. But it rejected 13 amendments.

Among the rejected amendments was one which would have authorized provinces to prohibit home cultivation of marijuana if they choose.

Quebec and Manitoba have already decided to ban home-grown pot, even though the bill specifies that individuals can grow up to four plants per dwelling. The purpose of the Senate’s amendment was to prevent legal challenges to their constitutional right to do so.

Conservative Sen. Claude Carignan attempted Tuesday to have the amendment reinstated in the bill — which would have meant the bill would have to be bounced back to the House of Commons and could have set the stage for a protracted parliamentary battle between the two houses of Parliament.

But senators voted 45-35 not to insist on that change.

Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, leader of the independent group of senators, said C-45 was “a bit of a stress test” for the new, less partisan Senate.

“I think the new Senate came out very well. We worked very hard on reviewing the bill, proposing amendments” but ultimately deferred to the will of the elected House of Commons, as unelected senators should, he said.

 

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press


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