New rules benefit business, not patients

By Ryan Fink

Where people in Canada are still unjustly prohibited from using cannabis recreationally, those who have been granted a tenuous right to use it medicinally are being targeted by Health Canada in a new scheme called the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) that is set to replace the current Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR). In its own language, the MMPR amounts to nothing more than a simple “cost reduction” for the agency. This cost reduction stems almost entirely from a decision to scrap the parts of the MMAR that allow a person to grow their own medicine. This will result in a huge cost increase for many patients. This change is made mainly in the name of “safety and security”, where safety and security are touted through the MMPR proposal’s abstract. But the real meat is in the middle of the document, where one finds a detailed cost benefit analysis that refers to all of these safety and security risks in terms of how much they cost the government to manage.

Let’s start with the first numbers they give us. The cost of cannabis for a medical user is now $1.80 per gram if you grow your own and $5 per gram if you purchase through mail order from Health Canada, who estimate that this cost will rise across the board to about $8.80 per gram under the new regulations, resulting in a net cost increase to medicinal cannabis users of $166 million per year.
Couple what amounts to $166 million of commercial profit, with the massive savings that come with Health Canada’s decision to take away patients’ right to grow, and you pull the medical cannabis industry out of the pockets of patients and put it in the hands of capitalists like those at Ross’s Gold. In case you haven’t heard, B.C. stoner sweetheart Ross Rebagliati has sold his name to a group of investors who aim to open up a nationwide chain of medical dispensary franchises. The people at Ross’s Gold must know something we don’t, because their business model seems to completely ignore the parts of the MMPR that restrict cannabis distribution to direct mail-order, pharmacies, and hospitals. Meanwhile, Ross and friends are going ahead with opening up a bong shop in Whistler with the intention of converting it to a dispensary when the new regulations come into effect (assuming they come into effect in a radically different form than what has been proposed to date). These are the kind of entrepreneurs the government would have providing us with our medicine, where no allowance has been made for groups that have been doing this work successfully for decades, like the VCBC.
Let’s look at some figures, since they’re all we’ve been given to go on from the proposal. Here is where the money will be saved (remember, if you’re going to save one thing, save money): “Reduction in risk of residential fire”—annualized savings of $9.58 million over ten years; “Reduction in risk of home invasion”—$13.27 million per year over ten years; “Program administration costs”—$71.24 million per year over ten years; and “Reduction in deadweight loss” of $5.03 million per year over ten years. What Health Canada fails to account for here is that all of these costs are systemic and do not, in and of themselves, result from grow-ops, but rather from antiquated laws that until now have only existed because of the economic and political impositions of the U.S., which itself is presently spearheading the global legalization initiative.

These costly electrical fires, wherever they burn, could easily be prevented if more resources were available to patients in terms of equipment selection, installation, consultation, and inspection. Home invasion is a bit trickier because it will always be on the minds of people who grow as long as the value of their plant is artificially inflated by prohibition. But this risk is, like all risk, manageable, and in the face of a person’s right to life, liberty, and security of the person, this risk is negligible. This is why the police exist—to protect people from violence. People currently have the right to grow cannabis, and as such, they are entitled to the same police protection and insurance policies that people who do other risky things, like keep valuable possessions of any sort in their homes, are entitled to.

The “MMPR as cost analysis” seems to gloss over these new regulations amounting to nothing more than the privatization of a particular kind of health care. The expense is being shifted from the government to the consumer. Unlike other medicines that aren’t covered by our medical plan, cannabis has, countless times, been proven in court to be an essential medicine—something that can save lives or treat symptoms where nothing else works. This being the case, shouldn’t it be covered for people who can’t afford it the same way life-saving pharmaceutical drugs are covered? The new system is one in which a person who can’t afford to pay commercial prices for their medicine can’t afford to live.

And this is one of the main issues with the new commercial scheme: a significant proportion of medicinal cannabis users are disabled or live well below the poverty line. Multiple Sclerosis, chronic pain, chemotherapy—many of the conditions helped by cannabis are ones that make it very difficult for people to afford the constantly mounting cost of food and rent, let alone the cost of their essential medicine.

The plan is set to take full effect by Mar. 31 of next year. But it has started to take effect already. As of last Dec., Health Canada began accepting applications from potential commercial suppliers so that they could begin operating as early as this spring. Health Canada has stated that when the new producers come online, they will immediately match their own prices for dried cannabis to those of the new supply. This means that anyone who currently buys their cannabis directly from Health Canada for a modest $5 per gram will have to pay whatever the commercial producers think amounts to a fair profit before this spring is over.

Cost is the fact that currently, most cannabis producers maximize the amount of medicine they get from their crops by processing the leaf and trim into extracts and concentrates. These products are of at least as much medicinal value as the dried buds that are more familiar, and strangely preferable to health officials. The new regulations make no allowance for these byproducts. This is a terrible oversight, especially in light of Owen Smith’s recent victory in the BC Supreme Court. (See Owen’s article in this issue.) For my purposes, the fact that commercial producers will not be allowed to process the byproducts of bud production into valuable medicines like edibles, hashes, and oils, leads to an increased cost for the dried buds, and will ultimately result in a limited range of products, with unreasonably high prices.

In all, it seems like these new regulations are just a way for Health Canada to wash its hands of the burden of providing this particular kind of medicine to the people who need it. It will not bear the cost, nor will it bear the bureaucratic responsibility. What then, is the role of this organization here? They seem unable to make the one real change that will fix all the problems associated with cannabis—legalization.

Meanwhile, for organizations like the Victoria Cannabis Buyers’ Club, these new regulations spell out an uncertain future. To date, our continued existence has depended on the courts’ recognition that, for many people, clubs and dispensaries are the best option for obtaining their medicine. The MMPR fail to acknowledge this, as they fail to make any move toward legitimizing our time-tested practice. Unless this changes, our existence will depend on the success or failure of the MMPR in providing adequate access to medicine for those who need it. The more successful the new regulations are, the less people will need to continue to use our services.

In any case, it will be a travesty if these regulations are allowed to pass as they are. The idea that this plant provides medicine, and yet the people who need it won’t be able to legally grow it themselves, is absurd. It would be like prohibiting the cultivation of garden vegetables because it is safer, by the reason of some obtuse mandate, to get them from the supermarket.

I have referred extensively to the following documents in writing this article:
<http://gazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p1/2012/2012-12-15/html/reg4-eng.html>
<http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/media/nr-cp/_2012/2012-193-eng.php>