The Federal Court of Canada has certified a class-action lawsuit involving 40,000 people in the medical marijuana access program.

The case was launched in 2013 after Health Canada sent letters to people with the program's name on the envelope. Before that, mail sent to individuals in the program didn't mention marijuana.

Recipients were upset, saying their privacy had been violated. Some said they worried they'd lose their jobs or become victims of a home invasion.

ns-hi-debbie-stultz-giffin

Debbie Stultz-Giffin says Health Canada put people at risk by disclosing they were part of the medical marijuana program.

In March this year, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada ruled that Health Canada had violated federal privacy laws. That ruling didn't allow for any compensation.

In a press release, the Halifax law firm that launched the case said the certification shows the Federal Court has decided the class-action lawsuit is necessary to allow people access to justice.

Medical status disclosed

Debbie Stultz-Giffin, chair of Maritimers Unite for Medical Marijuana Society, was one of 2,105 people who received the letter in Nova Scotia, and is anxious to see the case proceed. 

She said it left patients and caregivers open to everything from home invasion, to condemnation from people close to them who may not have been aware they were using marijuana.

"It opened us up for discrimination," she said. "Health Canada exposed our privacy to the public, to Canada Post and in some situations to friends, neighbours. Certainly as patients we have a right to that level of privacy about our health conditions or what we chose to use as our medicine."

Stultz-Giffin said her group is encouraging people to share how the breach impacted them on a website set up for the suit. The lawyers in the case say more than 1,000 people have registered for the site.

David Fraser

Privacy lawyer David Fraser says the letters communicated to whoever handled the envelope that the recipient had serious health issues. (CBC)

"This is not over yet, but the thousands of affected program members should take some comfort that every legal claim we advanced on their behalf has been approved to go forward," said David Fraser, a privacy lawyer at McInnes Cooper in Halifax.

The plaintiffs are seeking damages for breach of contract, breach of confidence, invasion of privacy and charter violations.

Compensation sought

Fraser said it's too early to quantify what compensation they'll be looking for, but that it may depend on how individuals were affected by the breach. 

The federal government now has 30 days to appeal the Federal Court's certification.

Fraser said the privacy breach has added extra stress to people already struggling with serious health issues. He hopes Health Canada will consider negotiating a resolution instead of appealing the certification and going through a court battle.

"When you're dealing with 40,000 people with debilitating health conditions, drawing this out is not to anyone's advantage. It's best to resolve it as fast as you can," he said.

​McInnes Cooper is jointly representing users from across Canada with Branch MacMaster LLP of Vancouver, Charney Lawyers of Toronto, and Sutts, Strosberg LLP of Toronto and Windsor, Ont.