By Al Graham

On June 17, the Government of Canada informed Canadians that they were about to change the Medical Marijuana Access Regulations to an “improved” new model. At this time they informed us that they were going to have a 45 day consultation period to allow Canadians to speak up. They say this period, which ended July 31, would allow Canadians a chance to write to them about the program and what changes they would like to see in it.
When this process got started they let Canadians know that where they stood on cannabis, as this process was announced as the “Government of Canada Considers Improvements to the Marihuana Medical Access Program to Reduce the Risk of Abuse and Keep our Children and Communities Safe.” In Ontario, where there is an opiate addiction problem, this could be changed to the “Government of Canada Considers Improvements to the Pharmaceutical Program to Reduce the Risk of Abuse and Keep our Children and Communities Safe”.
During the 45 day period, thousands of Canadians emailed the government to let them know what improvements they would like to see. Many people are sceptical about the consultation plans, and wonder if they are really listening. When you see a government that ignores the request of hundreds of municipalities and social groups across Canada about their plans to eliminate the long form census, or the fact that they ignore the 30,000 lawyers of the Canadian Bar Association and to the very fact that they have completely ignored all the evidence that mandatory minimum penalties don’t work, I just can’t see how they are going to listen to people smoking something that they believe came from the devil.

Talking with Stakeholders

Over the past, and in the coming, few months Health Canada (HC) has been consulting with law enforcement, physicians, and government officials as these groups have concerns they want the government to address. These concerns include the risk of abuse by the criminal element, the complexity and length of the application process for individuals, and updated medical information for physicians in regards to the risks and benefits of it medically. And of course we can’t forget their concerns about issues of electrical and fire hazards to the possible presence of excess mould and poor air quality.
While HC travels across the country listening to these groups, they are also consulting with compassion centres throughout Canada. They held these meetings in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec which required some of the centres to fly in to these cities to have representatives attend. These meetings were held to make sure that patients’ interests and concerns are looked after, as well as to make sure that their own voices are being heard. They were also held so that Health Canada could hear and find out how the centres operate. Once completed, Health Canada will release the meeting minutes as well as who was involved.
In the end, the input from all these consultations will be considered in the development of the new regulations. Canadians will once again have an opportunity to comment on them when the proposed regulations appear in the Canada Gazette sometime in 2012. At this point they will allow for another round of comments and then the final release will be in the Canada Gazette late in 2012 or early in 2013. From there it appears the present program will end in 2014.

Present Program

Under the current program, individuals wanting to use cannabis for medical purposes must first obtain a signature from a doctor who agrees that cannabis is going to be used to help them with a medical condition.
You then apply to Health Canada to be authorized to possess and to grow your marijuana. When you do, you have three options for getting your medication. You could purchase it from Health Canada, produce your own cannabis, or designate someone to grow for you.
The application process can take up to 10 weeks—but has been known to take six months or longer due to the many problems at Health Canada, from under staffing to the increase in demand. Presently, they claim that there is no more back log as they have hired several more employees to help process incoming applications, and may hire more.
Future Program
The new program would eliminate sick and dying Canadians from having to submit application forms or personal medical information to HC in order to use cannabis medicinally. Unfortunately, it doesn’t encourage doctor involvement in the program, which will still leave many patients searching out a doctor.
There are a few different versions being floated around how it may run. One scenario has patients possibly submitting a document from their physician directly to a licensed commercial producer who in turn would mail you your medication, and another one has the compassion centres operating as the distributors.
Under the proposed improvements, cannabis would be treated as much as possible like other medications, and that seriously sick and dying Canadians would still be required to consult a doctor. The list of medical conditions appears to be gone, as Health Canada says it will be up to the doctor and the patient to decide. This would mean doctors would be able to sign for any condition they feel will benefit from cannabis treatment.

How will it affect people?

The government says, to reduce potential risks of abuse by criminal elements and apparently to keep our children and communities safe, a new supply and distribution system for cannabis should be established.
Patients will no longer have to go through the long process and anxiety of waiting for their licence to arrive in the mail, and will no longer have to wait weeks for an official from Health Canada to call them back.
This new system would only use licensed commercial producers, with patient growing licenses phased out. This means that individuals would no longer be able to grow cannabis for medical purposes in their homes, and that the patients would lose the therapeutic benefits of working with their plants.

Before the Courts

Even though the Health Canada’s website states that compassion centres or clubs are not legal, they are consulting with them on how to set up this program. This was something that Boris St-Maurice of Montreal has noticed. In a recent email he says “Health Canada has consistently testified against dispensaries, and also against patients, so it came to me as a surprise that they are all of a sudden so “eager” to sit down with us.” Cannabis Digest publisher and International Hempology 101 Society president, Ted Smith, agrees as he finds it “disturbing that Health Canada seeks to finds out this information from the clubs.”
St-Maurice went on to mention that Health Canada wanted to know what the clubs liked and disliked about the new proposed regulations. I’m sure the dislikes were easier to come up with than the likes.
As HC travels from coast to coast talking to these centres, they are also trying to find out how the clubs operate on the inside, which leads one to be suspicious as to why. Did they want to know how to run a program like the centres without the centres being involved? Or do they realize that the centres know what they are doing and they are the only ones that the government can turn to, to see a working model?
In the first meetings, it also appeared that Health Canada was very tight lipped about almost everything, and seemed that they were on a fact finding mission. Smith says that it seemed like this was “for corporations and not for the clubs. It’s like they are using us as a template for their program.” But in a conversation with a member from the group in Toronto who meet with Health Canada, they felt that Health Canada might have lightened up a bit before meeting with them.
St-Maurice also mentioned that there are two cases (his and the CALM compassion club) coming before the courts, and that he doesn’t “see how they can both be claiming to want to work with us while at the same time preparing to testify against us in court. Seems contradictory and paradoxical.”
In the meetings, government officials have said that the new program is to be put in place because of court cases that state cannabis is a charter right and that they have no plans to legalize for other uses, or decriminalize. They went on to tell the group in Toronto that the government is looking for ways for the program to continue, but want to design the new program to work properly.

Fly on the wall in the room

While some people have some concerns about compassion clubs and their end goal, it is important to note that some of the centres have brought some of the patient’s main issues up with government officials. This would include items from the investment patients and their designated growers have made in building their gardens, to how patients could get it covered by insurance or provincial plans.

Health Canada Wants Dispensaries

Loretta Clark, who attended the meeting in Montreal as a patient advocate, reported that the meeting she attended had a minute taker present, and others were told that these meeting minutes would become public. This was also confirmed by Blaine Dowdle of MedCannAccess in Toronto, as he says that they were “told to talk to people about it and to spread the word” about the meetings.
When it came to removing patient licenses Clark says that “no one supported eliminating such licensing” which was confirmed with other attendees. Dowdle says that “if the PPLs were to remain ‘new methods of enforcement’ would have to be included.” This could mean that those choosing to grow for themselves would have to agree to allow inspectors from their municipalities to come in and ensure that all codes, electrical and otherwise, are being met. While some may not have a problem with this, others would ask why indoor gardens growing tomatoes or other plants would not also require the same inspections. The one thing the inspections would do is eliminate the fear created by those in authority positions. There are some who think that the PPLs may survive the changes, but are not sure about the designated grower licences.
Adam Greenblatt of the Medical Cannabis Access Society, from Quebec, agrees with Clark and Dowdle, as he says me that “nobody supported the elimination of personal or designated production.” He went on to say that he believes it is “an opportunity for some diplomacy and for dispensaries to present themselves as professional, credible organizations that provide high-quality patient care—something at which Health Canada has failed miserably”
There was one report that pharmacies may possibly be the new distributors of our medication, but Joy Davies of the Grand Forks Compassionate Society believes that “there was possibly a pilot project with pharmacies done with Health Canada. The pilot project may have failed due to the fact that the pharmacies just didn’t want to deal with the “security” problems of storing and selling the cannabis.” She also believes that “this is big, as it really opens the doors for the success of dispensaries,” who have been fighting for years to become legal.
As a licensed medical user, I was told by several people that I would receive a letter from Health Canada in regards to these proposed regulations, but as Davies told this group “patients did not receive their letters of invitation to participate with comments to the website consultative process due to the fact the letters went to DGs and not patients,” and that if she remembers correctly “there are over 100 identified patients that did not receive their letters.” which I know I am one of them.
Health Canada has talked about having patients order their medication online through a website, but as Davies points out in her meeting “things that they had not seemed to consider such as no education for the patient; sick patients using a website never mind healthy people have a hard time sifting through 25 websites to make a choice,” and that “seniors are a high demographic for use of cannabis medically, many do not, or cannot use computers and [there is] potential for mail theft.”
The government is essentially in charge of research on cannabis as a medicine, due to legalities and licensing, and that has not happened. This is something that may take some time to do since the Harper Government has also stopped the funding into cannabis research. If you don’t do the research you can always say that there isn’t any proving anything.
Blaine Dowdle says that there will be “no limit to the number of licenses that Health Canada will issue but they all must meet the license requirements set out in the new program,” and when asked about gamma radiation, he didn’t see that as being a requirement and that patients had spoken out against it.

Derivatives are Healthier

When it came to derivatives and their uses Ted Smith says “derivatives weren’t even mentioned” even though some of the groups have included them in their written submissions. Patients want to have access to alternative methods of cannabis consumption. Not all patients want to smoke their cannabis and “medibles” create one of the best possible harm reduction methods. Medibles often help patients reduce or eliminate the amount needed to smoke. Two other benefits that they have been told about are their affordability and discretion. Cannabis-infused edibles and concentrates can be more affordable on a per-dose basis than the dried cannabis flowers for smoking, and pharmaceutical cannabis preparations such as Nabilone and Sativex. The other big benefit with medibles is that cannabis-infused edibles offer a discrete delivery alternative, and do not create lingering odours like smoking, and are usable in public areas where smoking is not possible, such as in restaurants and workplaces.
Dowdle says that it seems as though HC recognizes the importance of medibles, but he also says that Health Canada’s concern is food safety and the proper labelling of the products for the consumer. He went on to say that Health Canada seems more open now to extracts than they did in the beginning, and it could be because of what was “built on the Montreal and Vancouver meetings.”

Strangers in the room

A year or so ago, there were some seemingly secretive meetings held between some private groups and Health Canada. When the word got out about this, it created some unrest amongst the community. Were these people going behind other peoples back? What was being discussed without the patients being involved? This time around the meetings started out apparently being secretive, but they ended up being somewhat public. A few people have commented that people who do not represent compassion clubs have just shown up and allowed in, even though they weren’t suppose to be there. One such person produced a business card from the United States. Why a person from the United States, business man or otherwise, is in a room discussing Canadian Healthcare is beyond those who were in attendance. Many that wrote me were upset about this and some wondered if the other side is taking this seriously. Then Smith of Hempology 101 and the CBC of C asked some people in the movement, what if this pertains to NFTA the North American Free Trade Agreement? Could an American company try to use this agreement to become the suppliers of our medication? Could they actually set up shop in Canada and start to produce our medication?
The meeting in Toronto had about eighteen people in attendance. This would include patient advocates, compassion centres from Toronto, Kingston, Guelph, and Montrea,l and with at least one flying in from the East Coast.
Throughout these meetings there has been a number of issues discussed, but one thing seemed to be missing, which was brought up by Marco Renda of Treating Yourself magazine. Where are the new licensed growers, suppose to be able to get their genetics from? Are they going to allow them to produce their own seeds, or are they going to allow retail stores to supply them to these growers? Will the government allow the producers to receive their seeds from companies outside of Canada? These were some very good questions especially since Health Canada is getting out of seed selling, and it was one question that they didn’t have an answer for.
It also looks like the government is open to the growing of more than one strain, and if they do all of this, including setting it up like other medications, have they finally agreed that cannabis is a medication?

Coverage for the Disabled

Dowdle, of MedCannAccess, touched on the fact that patients could lose their right to affordable medicine, and if there was anything, such as a medical plan, that could cover it. He says that the issue was brought up in the Toronto meetings, and that Health Canada says that the medical coverage of cannabis is “not their jurisdiction” and that they couldn’t do anything about it. Dowdle says that they recommended that “patients lobby the producers, and that the two groups push their provincial governments for this coverage.” I can’t see why any compassion centre, or producer of cannabis medicine, would not start to lobby the right people. This would in turn help them to be able to serve more patients and hopefully help in keeping the prices competitive. One thing that Dowdle mentioned was that Health Canada would not be subjecting producers to a “licensing fee” that could be passed onto the consumer. Part of the problem of getting cannabis covered under almost any program is that therapeutic cannabis doesn’t come with a Drug Identification Number, and won’t until the studies are done. But don’t hold your breath for these studies because the government provides no funding for that research.
It appears that Health Canada is most definitely getting out of the therapeutic cannabis business. Instead, they will incorporate a business version that will start a new cannabis industry. Will this new industry allow patients access to affordable medication? Could this new industry possibly be put into corporate hands? Will patients who can’t afford medication under this new industry be left behind? Could this be the beginning of the business model that a future government would use for a taxed and regulated market? There are definitely many unanswered questions.