Marijuana as medicine
Aside from illegal recreational users, there are 130,000 Canadians licensed to use medical marijuana. The landscape is shifting for all consumers
Gary Yokoyama,The Hamilton Spectator
Caught somewhere between the government, federally-licensed medical marijuana growers and illegal dispensaries are the consumers who say marijuana is medicine.
Depending on who you ask, it’s either way too easy or too hard to access medical marijuana.
Cory Kaus says that before he started using marijuana for pain and nerve damage from a knee injury, he once went a whole month with only an hour of sleep a night.
“It feels like somebody dipped my leg in gas and lit it on fire and every step I’m walking on broken glass,” he said.
The marijuana industry and regulation is complex and promises to only become more so with legalizing recreational use.
“I’ve never seen anything as close to as complicated as this issue.”
Assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences
Kaus says he needs about 25 grams of marijuana a day, even though his licence is only for 3 grams a day. He uses a lot of oils and edibles to cut down on smoking.
His licence is for personal production, which is allowed in the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR) released in August in response to a federal court ruling that upheld patients’ rights to grow their own medical marijuana.
However, the vast majority of patients must go through licensed producers, who sell online. The 130,000 Canadians with licences are required to have a doctor sign off, something some patients find difficult.
Because of stigma and uncertainty around marijuana use, Kaus said many doctors won’t sign off. A small number work for clinics or have arrangements with dispensaries, but most are too afraid to speak publicly. Patients often face long waits and have to pay administrative fees.
To maintain a licence, patients can only buy from one LP at a time and must buy regularly. Some patients complain this system is too expensive and difficult, and makes turning to an illegal dispensary more appealing.
While Hamilton police continue to charge dispensary owners, Det. Craig Leishman, says vice and drug officers use their discretion and do not charge patients who buy from dispensaries, even through it’s not a legal source.
Inside his small Hamilton apartment, Kaus shows a large collection of dried marijuana, oils and edibles he says he needs to get through the day. He is skeptical of both the licensed producers and many dispensaries.
Dispensaries are the wild west — with no regulation and a huge range in product quality and service. The licensed provider process is expensive and cumbersome, with many patients finding it difficult to find the strain that works for them.
“If you find one you like, it’s never there next time you go to order,” he said.
It can take some trial and error to find the right product, patients say.
Patients smoke, use vaporizers and dab (smoking a concentrated wax). Then there are edibles — cookies, brownies, chocolate and gummies.
While licensed growers do sell oils, many of the specialized products are not available.
It’s the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that is hallucinogenic, and is also believed to have therapeutic properties. There is also emerging research that another chemical compound found in cannabis called cannabidiol (CBD) — which doesn’t make you high — has health benefits. Some products isolate CBD.
Then there are the roughly 80 more chemical compounds that haven’t been studied and the suspected aromatherapy benefits from terpenes — pungent oils.
“That’s my mantra, when people ask me what does the cannabis industry need, more research,” said Jeannette VanderMarel, co-founder of licensed producer The Green Organic Dutchmen.
That was ultimately the findings of a recent massive study examining marijuana research by the Committee on the Health Effects of Marijuana at the National Academy of Sciences in the United States:
“Despite extensive changes in policy at the state level and the rapid rise in the use of cannabis both for medical purposes and for recreational use, conclusive evidence regarding the short and long term health effects of cannabis use remains elusive.” The marijuana industry and regulation is complex and promises to only become more so with legalizing recreational use.
Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promising legislation by this summer, experts agree it’s likely years before the legislation comes into effect.
Meanwhile, 20,000 Canadians are getting criminal records for simple drug possession charges each year, said drug policy expert Michael DeVillaer.
Hamilton’s vice and drug unit has strategically decided not to charge dispensary patients, but officers can use their discretion when deciding whether or not to charge for simple possession for consumers without a licence.
DeVillaer would like to see immediate decriminalization of simple possession and then the creation of a nonprofit cannabis authority to oversee legalized marijuana.
DeVillaer, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University, detailed his recommendations in a recent paper Cannabis Law Reform in Canada: Pretense and Perils.
“I’ve never seen anything as close to as complicated as this issue,” he said.
For his research, DeVillaer looked at the existing alcohol, tobacco and opioid industries, which he argues are poorly regulated and cause significant harm to Canadians. He believes part of the reason public health has been so unable to curb the risks of these drugs is the influence of their profit-driven manufacturers.
Instead of following a similar path to legalizing marijuana, he would like to see the creation of a not-for-profit oversight authority that would prohibit for-profit companies from being involved in the business. This would include buying out current medical marijuana producers.
The arms-length government body would include public health experts, ban all advertising and reinvest money in health (not profit shareholders).
DeVillaer said he recognizes his ideas are not popular, but believes it’s the best option to protect consumers.
“The odds are against it, but not giving up on it yet.”
Some patients complain this system is too expensive and difficult, and makes turning to an illegal dispensary more appealing.