The arrest of 12 people who fraudulently obtained licences to grow medical marijuana has highlighted loopholes in the Marijuana Medical Access Program that the government is attempting to address—to the concern of many authorized users of the program.
Police arrested the 12 individuals in Hamilton last week, among whom are several members of a family and their lawyer. They are charged with operating an illegal marijuana operation under the guise of the medical marijuana access program.
The arrests were made after a lengthy investigation by the Hamilton Niagara RCMP and the Hamilton Police Service into the lucrative marijuana grow operation, which they describe as an “egregious exploitation” of Health Canada’s medical marijuana access regulations.
According to police, the accused family members and their associates fraudulently obtained a substantial number of licenses for medical marijuana production with distribution networks extending to as far east as Newfoundland. The accused will appear in court in April.
These changes will strengthen the safety of Canadian communities, while making sure patients can access what they need to treat serious illnesses.
— Health Canada
The government announced in December that it is proposing changes to the program to stop such exploitation.
“The Government of Canada is concerned that the current Marijuana Medical Access Program is open to abuse,” Sara Lauer, a spokesperson with Health Canada, said via email.
“These changes will strengthen the safety of Canadian communities, while making sure patients can access what they need to treat serious illnesses.”
Rapid Growth in use of Program
The growth in the number of individuals using the program in the past decade has been exponential, with more than 26,000 people currently authorized compared to fewer than 500 in 2002.
“The rapid increase has had unintended consequences for public health, safety, and security as a result of allowing individuals to produce marijuana in their homes,” Health Canada said.
Currently, some patients grow their own medical marijuana in their homes while others have it couriered to them by a government distributor.
Under the proposed changes, the government would discontinue producing and distributing medical marijuana, and instead authorize private companies to play that role.
Patients would need to have a medical document similar to a prescription signed by a health care practitioner to purchase the needed amount, and would no longer be able to produce marijuana in their homes.
Those of us that are producing our own won’t be able to afford the new framework.
— Laurie MacEachern, Medicinal Cannabis Patients’ Alliance of Canada
“These changes will make it far more difficult for people to game the system,” Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq said in a statement.
The proposal, which just underwent a public comment period, has been endorsed by both law enforcement agencies and fire chiefs.
“An average of 1 in 22 grow operations (legal and illegal) catch fire, which is 24 times higher than the average home,” Stephen Gamble, president of the Canadians Association of Fire Chiefs, said in a statement.
“We applaud the Government of Canada for strengthening Health Canada’s regulations for marijuana for medical purposes to enhance the safety of Canada’s firefighters and the communities they protect.”
Chief Constable Jim Chu of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police also welcomed the proposal, saying it would reduce “the risk of abuse and exploitation by criminal elements.”
Patients, Doctors Concerned
However, many users of the program have expressed concern about the proposed changes.
Laurie MacEachern, director of the Medicinal Cannabis Patients’ Alliance of Canada, says the new system will not be affordable for medical marijuana users.
“It’s going to be an entirely commercial corporate production, and those of us that are producing our own won’t be able to afford the new framework.”
MacEachern says she can produce her own cannabis supply for an entire year for under $200, but under the new system she would have to pay thousands of dollars to get the same amount.
She also says the fact that doctors would now have to issue a prescription-like document in order for patients to use medical marijuana would make it harder to get access to the product, as doctors might be reluctant to prescribe its use.
Under the current system, the doctor provides a declaration that says the patient has exhausted every other method and is allowed to try marijuana legally, but the declaration doesn’t necessarily imply that the doctor believes in marijuana or knows it to be effective.
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) is also raising concerns, saying physicians and other health professionals have little to no evidence-based knowledge about the use of marijuana as medical therapy.
CMA president Dr. Anna Reid has said the proposals are “equivalent to asking doctors to prescribe while blindfolded.”
“The CMA believes that if Health Canada wants its Medical Marijuana Access Program to [help Canadians maintain and improve their health], it should not withdraw from administering the program, leaving it to health professionals working within a large knowledge gap,” the organization said in a published comment on the proposed changes.
Lauer says the proposed changes won’t place an increased burden on physicians.
“Health care practitioners have always decided whether or not to support the use of marijuana for medical purposes for their patients. Under the current program, Health Canada’s role has never been to question the medical advice that an individual receives from a physician,” she says.
“Under the proposed regulations, the responsibility to assess a patient and decide on an appropriate treatment would continue to rest with health care practitioners.”
Lauer also says it is unknown at this time what the cost of commercially produced marijuana would be as the price would be set by licensed producers.
“The government understands the need to continue to provide reasonable access to marijuana for medical purposes. The proposed new system will do so in a way that is consistent with the way access is provided to other narcotics used for medical purposes.”
The government aims to implement the new regulations by March 31, 2014.
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