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Canada’s New Marijuana Medical Access Program

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On June 10, 2013 the Minister of Health released the new regulations that will govern access to cannabis for medical purposes in Canada. The regulations are the result of consultations over the past two years and introduce significant changes to the program. The regulations eliminate previous requirements that patients submit an application to Health Canada requesting authorization to possess cannabis. Instead they must seek a document from their physicians that they would then present to a licensed producer. Though this move could potentially streamline access to cannabis for medical purposes, the Canadian Medical Association has released a report that suggests that many physicians believe they do not know enough about the benefits and risks of cannabis to “prescribe” it to their patients for medical purposes. The irony of this situation is that the prohibition of cannabis has limited the amount of research into its medical benefits (though research is increasing).

In addition, the new rules eliminate personal and designated production by individuals in their homes by March 31, 2014. This means that current options to access cannabis for medical purposes will be replaced by regulated and commercial Licensed Producers and medical cannabis dispensaries remain excluded from the supply chain by these new regulations. Many patients produce their own cannabis in order to access strains that they have found to be helpful. Maintaining one’s own garden is also cost-effective. Even the government’s own regulatory impact statement notes that the cost of medical cannabis will go up with the new rules. These cost increases could potentially act as further barriers to accessing cannabis for medical purposes.

The exclusion of medical cannabis dispensaries from the supply chain is counterintuitive. The personnel working in these dispensaries are experts on using cannabis to treat a variety of medical conditions. Dispensaries also offer a range of patient-centred services and supports that help challenge the isolation many patients experience. And Canadian medical cannabis dispensaries have developed a rigorous accreditation program to ensure consistency in both the quality of their services and the products dispensed at these sites. Without dispensaries, patients will have to submit their doctor’s authorization to a licensed commercial producer and then receive their medication by courier, without the supports accorded by face-to-face consultations.

The odd thing about the new rules is that they introduce a fully commercialized route of access to cannabis for medical purposes while keeping the overall prohibition of this drug fully in place. Indeed some of the provisions for producers of cannabis for medical purposes may serve as a model for production of cannabis for a legal, regulated market. At the same time, the requirements for licensed producers are quite strict and could make it very difficult for small growers to transition to this new regime. It is also unclear how many licensed producers will be approved by Health Canada. This later point is key for patients who want to able to access a range of strains of cannabis.

All in all, these new rules will likely result in new barriers to accessing cannabis for medical purposes and will end up costing patients more money over the long-term.

- Connie Carter & Lynne Belle-Isle

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