What to expect from Health Canada’s new medicinal marijuana program

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew
Marijuana plants are displayed for sale at Canna Pi medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle, Washington, November 27, 2012. REUTERS/Anthony Bolante

Canada’s growing medicinal marijuana industry is set to undergo a major shift on Tuesday when Health Canada transitions its system out of the hands of individual grow-ops and into the hands of large companies.

April 1 was set to bring about a major shift in Canada’s cannabis culture, but a pending lawsuit has somewhat dampened what was expected to be a quick, sharp switch to an industrial approach. Due to a temporary injunction, changes to how the nearly 40,000 Canadians currently permitted to smoke pot to combat the effects of illness and various ailments have been delayed.

The head of one prospective medicinal marijuana company says the slow transition may actually be a benefit for Health Canada, which appeared to have been facing an impending supply shortage with only a handful of companies ready to step in and supply medicinal marijuana.

“I don’t think it’s a hard-and-fast date because of the temporary injunction. If anything, I was more worried for Health Canada,” Bill Chaaban, the CEO of Creative Edge Nutrition, told Yahoo Canada News.

“With the current list of licenced producers, I don’t think they would have been able to fill the market demand. So this will be a blessing, probably.”

As of Tuesday, Canada's medicinal marijuana program will transition from local, individual growers to a collection of larger companies specifically focused on filling the prescriptions of Canada's medicinal marijuana community.

The current laws, which allow those with medicinal marijuana prescriptions to either grow it themselves or outsource it to a caregiver, will officially end. But a court ruling has given those growers a reprieve.

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A Federal Court ruling that came down earlier this month will allow the nearly 40,000 individual Canadians who are licenced to produce marijuana for medicinal purposes to continue growing pot until the conclusion of a constitutional challenge.

B.C. attorney John Conroy is currently arguing that Health Canada's new policies are a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The federal government has since appealed the injunction.

Previously, the federal government had warned licencees they had to dismantle their grow-ops and destroy their supply of marijuana by the April 1 deadline and submit documents affirming the grow-op had been shut down by the end of the month.

The identities of those who did not comply were to be turned over to local law enforcement agencies for follow up. Although several police agencies in British Columbia have said they would not prioritize chasing those who grow pot for personal use.

Regardless, the country's official medicinal marijuana program will transition on Tuesday, and that will mean new rules to be learned and followed.

The new system will rely on mail delivery. Patients can register with various companies online, which will mail them or their doctor their prescriptions. Only those who receive a prescription from a doctor will be eligible to register.

The Canadian Medical Association has said the transition would not affect its opposition to medicinal marijuana – which it said it would hold until "questions about safety, efficacy, dosage and delivery have been answered."

It is currently up to individual doctors to prescribe marijuana treatment, and none are "obligated" to fulfill such requests. The CMA notes that 78 per cent of all registered users live either in British Columbia or Ontario.

[ Related: Medical marijuana injunction appealed by federal government ]

Still, the number of medicinal marijuana users continues to increase, and many predict the industry is set for rapid expansion in the near future.

There are currently 12 companies registered to provide medicinal marijuana to the 40,000 Canadians currently permitted to smoke pot as a remedy. Several have noted on their websites, however, that they are out of inventory, or are not currently producing at full capacity.

But even more companies are expected to jump into the market in the near future. There have been approximately 450 companies apply for such licences, with some estimating the industry will be worth more than $1 billion by 2024.

Chaaban’s Creative Edge Nutrition is a Michigan company currently building a massive marijuana growing facility near Windsor, Ont.

The site currently has one indoor farm ready for production, capable of producing about 60,000 kilograms per year. A second building is currently under construction. Chaaban says he hopes to have the company’s licence confirmed before the end of April, and would start production shortly after that.  He expects the market to grow considerably in the next few years.

“Oh yeah, over the next few years, once we have licenced producers in place, once there is education campaigns for the physicians,” Chaaban said. “I think it will take a bit of time, but I think the market will grow to multi-billion-dollars in the next couple of years.”

Chaaban says the regulations that manufacturing companies follow will help put the CMA’s collective minds at ease. That industry credibility, combined with more research and awareness, should lead to more doctors willing to prescribe marijuana.

The issue, he said, will be whether companies are able to work together to expand and legitimize the market. One issue he wants to address is the current law that prohibits vaporizers and marijuana-infused edibles.

“I think you are going to see some lobby groups form. We are very interested in standing together with other licenced producers. There is a need to lobby Health Canada to allow different mechanisms of delivery of the finished product,” Chaaban said. “Ways other than smoking… I think part of the hesitance from the CMA is that they are anti-tobacco or anti-smoking, and this is the only form or mechanism of delivery for patients.

“I think it is going to take a banding together of licenced producers.”

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