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Canada’s New Medical Weed Program Puts the Poorest Patients Last

A new program designed to turn Canada into a medical weed making machine will be great for the economy, but what about the cancer patients who need kush to ease their pain?

Sheena Lyonnais


Some tasty lemon kush. via Flickr.

At the moment, 40,000 Canadians are currently authorized to possess medical marijuana. Until April 2014, these patients can purchase their supply from a licensed personal producer, or they can get permission to grow it themselves, but soon every Canadian medical marijuana user will be forced to comply with a new medical program that will push them to buy legal medical weed from commercial government-regulated facilities.

Canada’s new “Marihuana for Medical Purposes” (yes, they spell it with an ‘H’ for some reason) program is creating an emerging for-profit market that will regulate crop control, dump money into the economy, and attempt to position Canada as one of the world’s top exporters of medical marijuana. But it's the patients who are caught in the middle of an evolving system that threatens to make medical weed so expensive many will no longer be able to afford it, forcing them to continue growing their own personal stashes—which will be illegal as of April 2014—or buying it from regular ol’ pot dealers.

According to Health Canada, no one’s trying to turn sick Canadians into criminals with these new laws. It was more in response to problems with the current Marihuana Medical Access Program (MMAP), which a Health Canada spokesperson says is "open to abuse." 

It also seems to be about the money. Canada’s new commercial industry is poised to be worth more than a billion dollars, and could put our country at the top of the globe’s emerging medical weed export market. While the use of medical marijuana is legal in other ostensibly cannabis friendly countries, as well as several states in the US, the idea of importing and exporting medical kush belongs to a new school of thought.

"Cost is well documented as a drawback," says Chuck Rifici, the CEO of Tweed, one of the proposed commercial grow-ops. Tweed has already begun renovations on the old Hershey manufacturing plant in Smiths Falls, about an hour outside of Ottawa, to turn what used to be a chocolate factory into something even more incredible: a weed factory. Smiths Falls, a town of 9,000 people, was hit hard when the Hershey plant closed in 2007—subsequently putting 1,700 people out of jobs. At 180,000 square feet, the facility plans to be one of the largest producers of medical marijuana in Canada. At full production, they expect to employ at least 100 people and hope to bring a thriving industry back to Smiths Falls.  


The construction zone at Tweed. Photo by Allan Ziolkowski.

"I think the companies that become large growers of marijuana in Canada will really have a chance to be a leading manufacturer in the world," said Rifici. "Canada might lead the way worldwide as we see other countries take similar regulatory moves as Canada has. The regulations also allow for export once other countries will allow for import."

Medical marijuana may prove to be a solid source of revenue for the country, but at what expense? For low-income patients who will have trouble affording this new commercialized weed, it may be their health. Though studies on the benefits of medicinal marijuana are inconsistent, people in the program insist that smoking medical marijuana is crucial to minimizing their pain. These patients are typically prescribed medical marijuana to help manage chronic pain and to alleviate nausea, loss of appetite, and other unpleasant symptoms from diseases like cancer and AIDS.

Further, it appears that access to information is a problem for the country’s 40,000 medical weed patients: “They haven’t done much to inform doctors or the public about how to access their new medical marijuana program,” said Matt Mernagh, a crusader for the legalization of marijuana who personally uses marijuana to treat his seizures, scoliosis, and fibromyalgia. “This is strange given that the feds have high projections for the numbers of Canadians who will be purchasing from licensed producers.”

"If I understand correctly, the average licensed size is about nine grams per day," says Neev, the owner of the Toronto-based compassion center C.A.L.M who only goes by one name. He is doubtful the availability of government-regulated marijuana will be up to snuff by the time the programs transition over—and by using some simple arithmetic, it’s not hard to see why. If you multiply nine grams by the 40,000 medical marijuana users in Canada, then multiply that number again by 365, you get a yearly demand of 131,400,000 grams (or nearly 300,000 pounds) of marijuana necessary to provide the current number of existing patients with enough product to get them through one year. That’s a whole lot of weed.

When you combine this with the added cost of shipping and packaging that will soon be necessary, Reev said that the new policy is not realistic. It is estimated, according to an article that ran in the Vancouver Sun, that each gram under the new system will cost between $8 and $10. In response, lawyers in British Columbia are finalizing a lawsuit against the government accusing Ottawa of "infringing on the rights of medical pot users and growers."

"Thousands and thousands of patients are approved to use more than 10 grams a day — that’s $100 a day at the new rates. No one can afford that," lawyer John Conroy told the Vancouver Sun. He noted that 60 to 70 percent of approved patients who are on fixed disability programs will suffer under the new system.

Reev echoes that sentiment: "The new program is not catered to poor people.”


Matt Mernagh with a giant nug.

Mernagh is convinced that cost will be a major challenge. “The price tag is a huge problem,” he said.  “Obviously you have a majority of patients who are living in poverty because of their disability. It's fascinating that businesses are interested in growing cannabis for the poor. There's little to no money there. The customer base is so slim and won't grow quickly. It's going to take some time for these businesses to become profitable—a slow burn.”

One positive of this new program is that it’s pressuring some insurance companies to look at medical marijuana as an "alternative medicine," said Sean Graham, an insurance broker at KTX insurance. Insurance is currently limited to property and liability coverage and typically offered through alternative providers such as Burns & Wilcox and CFC. Rifici said he has heard of a few patients who were able to secure insurance coverage for the cost of medical marijuana, but the process was difficult and uncommon. If insurance companies began offering insurance to cover the costs of medical marijuana it would be a different story.

"The term marijuana brings a lot of stigma," Graham said. "I don't think you're going to see an offering from regular insurance companies for this type of coverage anytime soon. You're only going to be able to find it in a niche market like a Burns & Wilcox."

Under the new regulations, patients will receive what's called a "medical document" from their physician—this is their golden ticket for medical marijuana. That patient then chooses a producer to get their weed from. The patient can switch producers once their prescription is up for renewal—or if they go back to their doctor to get a new document if they wish to switch suppliers. The semantics involved in these prescriptions being called "medical documents" should also be encouraging to insurance providers.

More than 200 applications to become licensed producers have been submitted. Health Canada said it will not place a limit on the number of licensed commercial producers in the country, making it impossible to predict just how many options patients will have. Patients concerned about a lack of strain availability need not worry. Tweed, for example, plans to launch with at least 30 different flavors of chronic.

"As the market grows, I think we'll see more patients who are happier to buy directly versus growing themselves. I totally get that it's a shock and at the same time a lot of existing patients aren't aware of the changes," Rifici says. Currently, 4,254 individuals hold a Designated Person Production Licence, which will be eliminated and illegal as of the end of March.

"Like any industry, I think we'll see a handful of dominant competitors emerge and have a large section of market control, and a lot of smaller boutique firms that will also supply," Rifici said. "I see a lot of similarities between [commercial marijuana production] and internet service providers. It's recurring revenue, and customers tend to stick with people they're happy with, so you have people coming back and purchasing the product over time. We'll see a lot of consolidation in this space as well."

Commercial producers will have to meet strict criteria. Health Canada reports that "licensed producers have to demonstrate compliance with regulatory requirements such as quality control standards, record-keeping of all activities as well as inventories of marijuana, and physical security measures to protect against potential diversion." Anyone who works in or around the crops must hold a valid security clearance issued by the Minister of Health. In addition, all shipments must be tracked and monitored, and all of the weed must be tested regularly to monitor THC levels and prevent safety breaches, like mold growing on the nugs.

Ultimately, these new regulations are positioning marijuana as an acceptable form of medication—and it's possible that this all may lead to the decriminalization of non-medical cannabis use in Canada as it has in Colorado. But for now Health Canada needs to consider some sort of action plan so that existing patients aren’t lost in the shuffle, and can continue to have access to the medical marijuana they need. Hopefully this massive new program has a smooth launch and can improve medical marijuana access to all of its patients, rich or poor.