Medical marijuana users shouldn’t be forgotten on path to pot legalization: advocates

Daily Brew

[A medical marijuana dispensary in Halifax/CBC News]

Canada has a lot of decisions to make about what legalized marijuana will look like, and one of those is deciding what to do with its existing system for medical marijuana.

Some jurisdictions that have legalized recreational marijuana, like Colorado, have allowed the medicinal and recreational systems to co-exist. Others, like Washington state, experienced growing pains due to a lack of a medical marijuana system — something Canada could avoid by allowing existing medical providers to also sell recreational marijuana. 

And experts disagree on which path is right for Canada, which legalized medical marijuana in 2001.

“I think there is an absolute need to maintain a medical system,” Deepak Anand, executive director of education and advocacy group the Canadian National Medical Marijuana Association, tells Yahoo Canada News.

A lot of the patients benefit from the product, Anand says, and simply rolling the existing system for medical marijuana into overall legalization could reduce needed Canadian clinical research.

“There’s always going to be a recreational market, but I don’t see the medical market going away,” Anand says.

But the Canadian Public Health Association is not in support of a separate system for medical marijuana, Ian Culbert says.

“In an appropriate retail model, the price and selection of products should be sufficient to have the [medical] needs met,” says Culbert, executive director of the public health-promoting, not-for-profit organization.

Choosing a model

A federal court decision in February has helped push the needs of medical marijuana users back to the forefront, says Jenna Valleriani, a student and marijuana advocate. 

On Feb. 24, a federal court judge struck down federal restrictions on the right of medical marijuana users to grow cannabis for their own use, giving the Liberal government six months to draft new regulations.

“For a while there, through the transition to a new government and all this hype around legalization, it was easy to forget the medical users,” Valleriani says.

But it’s important to not lose the needs of medical users in the wider push for legalization, she says, as they have different needs for dosing, information and administration.

“Medical patients have been growing for themselves for over 10 years,” Valleriani says. “A lot of people have found the strains that really work for them and have perfected that process.”

If medical marijuana remains a part of the new regime, decisions will have to be made about where it can be sold. Currently, medical marijuana can only be legally purchased online through one of 29 licensed sellers.

However, the number of illegal dispensaries is rapidly increasing in Canadian cities — a handful open each week in Toronto, Valleriani says. Working these dispensaries into the distribution of medical marijuana, or even recreational marijuana, is one option.

“People are staking a claim on legalization,” Valleriani says, of the growth of dispensaries across the country, despite the fact that they are currently illegal. “They want to be grandfathered into whatever regime unfolds.”

The growth of dispensaries indicates the need for a better distribution system for medical marijuana, now and after full legalization, Anand says. Allowing for the sale of medical marijuana through pharmacies could be one way to achieve that, he said.   

Medical marijuana in pharmacies

Shoppers Drug Mart is looking into the feasibility of selling medical marijuana, the Globe and Mail reported last month. If the national chain or another major retailer entered the market, things could shift dramatically.

“Pharmacies are going to get into this, and what we’d like to see is the pharmacare-type platform,” Anand says. “They’ve done that [selling prescription drugs] quite well for many years in this country, and that’s something they would excel at.”

Other jurisdictions have approached medical marijuana in different ways. In Colorado, for example, recreational legalization was rolled into the existing medical system. There has been some confusion about dosing and package labelling in the state, leading to an increase in pot-related ER visits by tourists — something the stricter labelling required for a medical product could help avoid.

“I think there’s a lot that Colorado can learn from us from the regulation side of things,” Anand says. 

Canada can take a lesson from Washington state when deciding on the taxation of marijuana products, medical or otherwise, Anand says. The state heavily taxes marijuana, which creates a black market there despite legalization, he says.

“The one thing we can learn from that is that we need to tax it appropriately, and not too aggressively,” Anand says.

Ultimately, as much as Canada may look to other nations for best practices for medical and recreational marijuana, the country will also serve as a model itself.

“I think the world is looking at us to see how we handle this,” Anand says.