Medicinal marijuana advocates warn the feds are creating an expensive pot oligarchy
Canada’s legitimate marijuana growers are going corporate.
Under Health Canada’s new Marihuana for Medicinal Purposes Regulation (MMPR), personal-use production licences are being revoked. New licences for consumer producers are being issued, but growers must meet a host of stringent requirements on points like security and bookkeeping.
According to a Health Canada regulatory impact analysis, meeting those conditions will cost producers between $290,000 and $395,000 a year. That will likely push mom-and-pop gardens out of business. But for those who can afford it, there’s plenty of potential for returns on investments.
“The proposed MMPR would enable an entirely new industry to be created in Canada,” the government report states. It estimates that by 2014, the size of the market will expand to 450,000 consumers spending $1.3 billion annually.
More than 150 people have already applied for licences to grow medicinal marijuana.
Some producers are hailing the regulatory change as a boost for business that will give consumers more choices. Other advocates for medicinal marijuana warn that the government is creating a pot oligarchy that will endanger the health of poor people who rely on cheap homegrown bud for relief.
On September 23, Health Canada made Prairie Plant Systems Inc. and its distribution subsidiary, CanniMed Ltd., the first and so far only licensed handlers of medicinal marijuana.
“It’s one of those things that you celebrate for a nanosecond, and then now you have to get really busy because you know the tsunami is coming,” said Prairie Plant System CEO Brent Zettl.
On the phone from Saskatoon, Zettl described the shift as moving medicinal marijuana into a manufacturing system comparable to that of the pharmaceutical industry.
“The product that we produce has 281 points of quality control,” he explained. “That’s the good news about the system; that is, in order to comply, there is a series of security measures and inventory control, reporting, and production standards that have to be adhered to, inspected, and auditable.”
But Zettl conceded that such a system could raise the market price for medicinal marijuana. “We need a minimum of $11 a gram to stay in business,” he said.
Eric Nash has grown certified-organic marijuana on Vancouver Island since 2002. On the phone from the Cowichan Valley, he told the Straight that his company, Island Harvest, has applied for a licence and expects to enter the inspection phase of the process in the very near future.
Nash recounted attending a stakeholders meeting in 2004 where Health Canada officials revealed it was only a matter of time before the government would revoke patients’ licences to grow marijuana.
“In forming the new regulations, they are giving birth to a brand new industry,” he said. “I think there will be a lot of specialty companies focusing on different areas. I think we’ll see some focusing on specific strains of cannabis, some growing hydroponically, some growing in soil, some growing to certified organic standards. So I think that in general, the new regulations will be good for consumers.”
Nash however added that some people will likely be unhappy with the new rules.
“It’s certainly good from an industry perspective,” he said. “But it’s not necessarily good for patients who cultivate their medicine at home. That’s one of the negative repercussions of the new industry being formed.”
Adolfo Gonzalez, a research coordinator and manager at Vancouver’s Eden Medicinal Society, put concerns for low-income home growers in starker terms.
“If they are actually going to try and enforce this legislation, there is going to be massive violations of people’s fundamental human rights,” he said in a telephone interview.
Gonzalez warned that the MMPR could price medicinal marijuana beyond what many sick people can afford. He added that while the Conservative government claims the new rules better facilitate access to medicinal marijuana, the new regulations are actually about commercializing a medication and benefiting big business.
“This is about establishing large production sites that abide by the type of regulations that require, say half a million dollars investment to a million dollar investment minimum,” he continued. “These are not mom-and-pop growers….This is something that is built for players that are out of our league, and it’s going to hurt the people that are at the bottom.”
Sensible B.C. campaign director Dana Larsen also expressed concerns for how the MMPR could adversely affect access.
“It looks like we’re going to have very extensive amounts of marijuana sold by these government-licensed producers,” he said. “The word might be oligarchy. The market’s not going to be as open a market as it should be.”
Larsen, who also manages the nonprofit Vancouver Dispensary Society, noted that under the new regulations, patients will only be allowed to purchase dried cannabis via mail order.
“They’re only allowed to sell raw buds,” he explained. “For most patients, raw buds are not what they need. Smoking a joint can be good medicine, but for really serious medical conditions, you need extracts.” (The B.C. Ministry of Health has expressed similar concerns.)
Health Canada spokesperson Sean Upton told the Straight the department is not doing interviews on the topic of medicinal marijuana.
On October 9, federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau told an audience at the University of Manitoba that he favours an approach that lets patients continue to grow their own pot.
“Our worries are that the current hyper-controlled approach around medical marijuana that actually removes from individuals the capacity to grow their own is not going in the right direction,” he said. “It neither respects freedom or the kind of care that people need.
“We don't need to be all nanny state about it the way Stephen Harper is with his prohibition,” Trudeau added.