With Canada's Liberal Party suddenly surging ahead in the polls, it's all the more likely weed could be fully legalized after next week's federal election. But those already in the industry worry about what impact that could mean for medical marijuana users.
Although Canada's federal government does not condone marijuana use at all, Health Canada reluctantly set up a system after the use of cannabis for certain medical conditions became legal in 2001. More than 50,000 Canadians are registered to use medical weed and licensed producers are the only legal way for patients to get the substance.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has vowed to legalize marijuana for regular use "right away" if elected — a policy the ruling Conservatives allege is naive and will ruin society. But Trudeau, who once admitted he "had a puff" of the drug after he was elected to Parliament in 2008, has yet to explain how exactly his legal regime would work and at what rate the substance would be taxed.
And that ambiguity makes Ronan Levy, director of the Canadian Cannabis Clinics, uncomfortable. Doctors at his clinic provide prescriptions for medical cannabis for all sorts of conditions. He says that service is more important than ever since doctors became the sole gatekeepers for medical marijuana in 2014, and the vast majority of them do not feel comfortable prescribing it because of a lack of conclusive scientific research on its effects.
"Because there's no clarity of what legalization looks like, we are all sitting here and waiting to see what the policy platform will be," Levy said.
His biggest concern about a Liberal government is how legalization could compromise the specialized medical cannabis sector that has taken root in Canada.
"Cannabis has a lot of potential medical therapeutic benefits. But because there are medical benefits associated with it, we want to make sure that it's being engaged with by the experts," Levy told VICE News. "To the extent that it gets removed from the purvey of doctors and people who understand its impacts and limitations, there's potential health risks for Canadians who may not understand the potential side effects or its interactions with other medicines."
On top of that, Levy wonders what impact full legalization for recreational use could have on the quality of the product medical practitioners provide to patients.
"Right now, the production side is highly regulated. So the quality of cannabis being produced is consistent, it's pure, and there are no pesticides," he explained. "If you deregulate that side of the industry, all of the sudden, the medical viability of cannabis becomes questionable."
But Bruce Linton, CEO of Tweed, the largest licensed cannabis producer in Canada, whose team has Liberal Party affiliations, isn't worried that the medical marijuana industry will be harmed under the Liberals. He says full legalization will likely buoy the industry that already exists — and is one of the fastest growing in the country. There are 25 licensed producers in Canada.
"I would think that for licensed producers — which are large, regulated, and under controlled shipping and accounting procedures — would be the first choice for delivery because that's the first methodology to gain control of the supply chain," Linton said. "The biggest risk for the sector right now is that there would be a such a high rate of growth and demand, that could make it difficult to do a terrific job of supplying properly and professionally."
In 2002, the Canadian Senate put out a report that estimated it cost the country's justice system between $300 million to $500 million to enforce the criminal laws against cannabis. After nearly a decade under the Conservative government, which introduced harsher sentences for drug-related crimes, arrests for possession of marijuana have increased by 28 percent.
According to a 2014 Angus Reid Global poll, nearly 60 percent of Canadians support full legalization of marijuana.
Watch the VICE Canada documentary series Canadian Cannabis: The Dark Grey Market here.
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