On September 7, Health Canada conducted a roundtable with medical cannabis dispensaries, otherwise known as compassion clubs, from around B.C. regarding its Medical Marihuana Access Program (MMAP). Although it was not the first time Health Canada had consulted about the program, it stated this time that its intent was to remove itself from supplying medical cannabis.
Health Canada needs to accept and license medical cannabis dispensaries such as the B.C. Compassion Club Society (BCCCS), which was represented along with 16 other such organizations at the consultations. The BCCCS is the oldest such entity in Canada and has been operating for over 14 years with the core principle of compassion in providing medicine to those in need—not cannabis alone but holistic health in the form of a full-service wellness centre that has everything from herbal medicine to acupuncture (these services are subsidized through cannabis sales).
Health Canada’s own Medical Marihuana Access Regulations (MMAR) program, which is now the MMAP, was in response to the overwhelming need for medical cannabis for symptomatic relief and condition management by a diverse section of patients. The program was wrought with flaws from the start. The MMAR supplied just one strain of cannabis that was not able to address all the symptoms from various conditions affecting patients all across Canada. Coupled with a long wait-time for access as well as a complicated 32-page form, the program quickly gained many complaints. Court decisions have continuously challenged the MMAR, and in instances such as the Mernagh case, have even found the program to be unconstitutional. For these and other reasons, patients overwhelmingly continued to choose compassion clubs as their medical cannabis providers.
Meanwhile a number of persons licensed by Health Canada to grow cannabis either for personal use or on behalf of other patients were busted or were the victims of robbery, leading several municipalities to question the effectiveness of the MMAR program.
Health Canada’s response, included in the proposed changes, is to phase out personal production licenses rather than provide regulation. This will result in persons suffering from the impacts of significant health complications losing one of the only legal options allowing them affordable access to their medicine.
The BCCCS in comparison has a compassionate cultivator program where suppliers grow high-quality cannabis that they offer for below-market prices in order to be able to provide for patients with low incomes. We provide around 60 different strains of cannabis, as well as a variety of non-smoking options such as baked goods, butters, and tinctures.
While officially medical cannabis dispensaries have been relegated to a “legal grey zone”, over the past 14 years compassion clubs have actually become the experts in the field, with far more patients loyal to and satisfied with our service than Health Canada’s program. After a decade-and-half of successful operation, dispensaries have reached a new maturity, reflected in past year by the establishment of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD) to ensure standards of operation across the country through a stringent certification process, similar to other accrediting health care associations. CAMCD was represented at the Quebec and Vancouver consultations, and will also attend the Ontario meeting.
Reputable medical cannabis dispensaries are uniquely qualified to advise Health Canada on creating regulations that will actually meet patient needs, as well as answer safety concerns from stakeholders such as the police, fire chiefs, and municipalities. The BCCCS and other leading compassion clubs are advocating for a patient-centred nonprofit model operated by staff that have more than a decade of expertise in the industry.
Over 14 years of successful operations and member support points to a logical resolution to the medical marijuana dilemma: Health Canada needs to catch up, rather than reinvent another flawed wheel. The legalization of compassion clubs will go a long way to addressing concerns with the Health Canada program through providing face-to-face education, a safe and supportive environment, diversity of strains, nonsmoking options, as well as an efficient and secure application process.
Isaac K. Oommen is the communications coordinator for the B.C. Compassion Club Society.