Health Canada’s stewardship of the country’s medical marijuana program has been pathetic. Now the agency wants to reboot the system and make gaining access to good medicine even harder.
Photos by Dan Skye
“To be governed is to be watched, inspected, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so.”
Thus spoke the French philosopher and politician Pierre-Joseph Proudhon about 150 years ago. But if the dude were alive today, he could have been describing the obstacles and aggravation that politicians create for the medical marijuana industry and the patients themselves.
In Colorado, medical growers must account for every gram of the cannabis plant they harvest – leaf, stalk, and bud. In Michigan, medical marijuana users are now required to store their pot in the trunk while riding in a motor vehicle. And in California, even as the State Supreme Court takes up the issue of whether cities can ban dispensaries outright, the DEA has ramped up its raids on these establishments. Despite it all, there is the universal feeling throughout America’s cannabis community that our laws are rapidly evolving, and that soon – very soon – we will see pot made legal for adult recreational use everywhere in the country.
Not so in Canada, where there seems to be a genuine regression in cannabis rights. As of September 2012, the Conservative-controlled government of anti-pot Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced an omnibus crime bill that imposes – for the first time in Canadian history – mandatory minimum sentencing for cannabis production. Anyone caught growing from six to 200 plants will now receive a mandatory six- to nine-month prison sentence. The bill has stripped away the right of judges to take into account such mitigating factors as marital status, number of dependents, a clean arrest record, or the community standing of the defendant when it comes to sentencing.
Medical marijuana was officially recognized in Canada back in 2001. Health Canada, the federal department responsible for health care, was compelled by the Canadian courts to create a program for medical marijuana patients, which included producing cannabis. But Health Canada’s ability to serve the country’s medi-pot patients has proven abysmal. Many have had to wait months – some for more than a year – to acquire a license from Health Canada to legally possess medical cannabis. Furthermore, some doctors are cashing in by charging exorbitant fees for recommending marijuana to patients. And people who live in rural areas are often unable to find a licensed caregiver and have been forced to rely on black-market sources.
Adding insult to injury, those who rely on the marijuana that Health Canada produces find it inferior in every regard. This single strain of unknown origin, which costs $150 per ounce, is grown in a mineshaft in the province of Manitoba. Water in this area has been tested and found to contain high levels of chemicals from mining operations, all of them toxic to humans. The product is then adulterated by being mulched with leaves and stalks, lowering its THC level to a meager 12.5 percent, as well as a CBD total of 0.5 percent and a CBN total of zero. Equally troubling is the fact that this government strain is treated like an imported potato, passed through radiation to kill any “microbiological attributes.”
Ironically, however, Health Canada’s bureaucratic bungling has enabled a vibrant industry to take root: Those who did acquire a federal license to grow cannabis have been producing outstanding medical strains, and the patients fortunate enough to hook up with these growers have been more than satisfied with the results. But now the government is seeking to get out of the pot business altogether by revoking those individual licenses and recognizing only a few dozen large commercial growers. This would be a ruinous development for the country’s established legal growers – the people who, over the course of nearly a decade, have perfected their medical cannabis strains for use by medi-pot patients.
At last count, there were over 28,000 Canadians who held a license to possess medical marijuana; of that number, more than 18,000 are licensed to grow. Each grower is allowed to provide for two patients, with a maximum of four patients per address (in other words, any individual grower can have a maximum of two patients. So if you’re growing for two patients, another individual at the same address can grow for another two, for a total of four patients. If there’s a third grower in the house, they have to find another address).
The total indoor plant count that is permitted per grower is dependent upon a doctor’s recommendation for the individual patient, who is allotted a certain number of grams per day. This translates directly into a plant count, which includes any and all stages of production, from clones to mature plants.
Derek Pedro of Hamilton, Ontario, is one such licensed grower. He received his personal production license in 2003 and started his career as a medical grower in his basement. He’s endured 10 years of jumping through bureaucratic hoops to keep his operation legal and up to Health Canada’s standards. In 2007, Derek was raided by police – but after nine months, all of the charges were dropped. The experience ended up only strengthening his dedication to medical cannabis: Derek started talking to journalists, retained a lawyer and initiated a civil action against the police department, which overstepped its bounds in arresting him.
Derek has refused to be treated like a criminal. Following his run-in with the law, he decided not only to serve as an advocate and help those who couldn’t – or didn’t know how to – defend themselves; he also decided that he would no longer keep his work under wraps. “I wanted to be totally transparent,” he says. “I opened up my company, MMAR [Medical Marijuana Alliance Resources], and started expanding rapidly, moving into greenhouses in 2009.”
Derek now oversees seven different facilities comprising indoor grows, greenhouses, and a seasonal outdoor garden. Over time, he has also devised a formula that allows patients to purchase their medicine for the astoundingly low price of $30 per ounce, if grown in the greenhouse, or $90 per ounce, if grown indoors (with the difference largely being due to lighting costs). “They’re not actually purchasing cannabis from me,” Derek explains. “They’re paying for the location’s rental, electricity, fertilizer, and the labor and expertise of the designated growers.”
Naturally, MMAR has been inundated with requests on a daily basis from patients who would like to use Derek as their designated grower. The waiting list has been steadily getting larger, but unfortunately, these patients are told there is very little the company can do.
“We can’t grow for everybody,” Derek says. “I wish we could. We have to tell them that the government’s regulations don’t allow us due to the 4:1 patient-to-grower ratio.”
Tragically, even this arrangement is set to become a thing of the past, with Health Canada planning to dismantle the nation’s entire current medical marijuana program. Essentially, the agency wants out of the pot business, so in its new proposed “Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations,” Health Canada states that it will no longer receive and process applications, issue authorizations and licenses, or continue to produce and supply marijuana for medical purposes. Instead, Health Canada proposes returning “to its traditional role of regulator rather than producer and service provider, while striking a better balance between access and risks to public health and safety.”
Under these proposed changes, which would take effect in 2014, personal-use production licenses will be eliminated, making it illegal for patients to cultivate their own marijuana. Only commercial producers would be licensed under the new system. The government foresees 50 large growers supplying the entire country, leaving caregivers like Derek to twist in the wind.
Health Canada says it expects to save an average of $149 million annually by handing the program over to large commercial growers. But the patients end up getting the shaft: Health Canada openly states in its proposed regulations that the current $1.80-per-gram cost for marijuana (if grown at home by people like Derek) will likely rise to $8.80 a gram when the program takes effect. So medi-pot patients will collectively be paying an estimated $166 million more per year – and thousands will be unable to afford the higher prices. These people will then be forced to buy on the black market, or to return to pharmaceuticals, or to risk growing illegally and being found guilty under the new mandatory minimum regime.
Derek doesn’t like to think about the impact that the new program would have on him. If it’s approved, the hundreds of thousands of dollars he has invested (and, more importantly, borrowed) to make MMAR a top-flight medical cannabis provider will go down the drain. He currently has a 110-light facility approved by Canada’s Electrical Safety Authority, with a total of 7,000 square feet of growing space. The municipal police have done walkthroughs of it twice, and their opinions have only been favorable.
“It’s amazing that our government can have such disregard for patients and businesses,” Derek says. “We have worked hard to build ourselves into a responsible, economically viable entity and have followed Health Canada’s guidelines to the letter. And now, because Health Canada has mismanaged the program from the get-go, we patients and caregivers are the ones who stand to be penalized.”
But Canadians are fighting back. A coalition has formed to address the problems created by the proposed regulations. Led by activist Jason Wilcox and attorney John Conroy, a veteran marijuana-law defense lawyer and civil-liberties expert, the MMAR DPL/PPL Coalition Against Repeal has over 3,400 members across Canada working to keep the current program in place, prevent the new regulations from becoming law and, if that worst-case scenario does happen, file a class-action lawsuit against the government. (Personal-production and patient-designated producers – current and future – are encouraged to fill out an impact statement on the coalition’s website.)
“This is my life’s work,” Derek says. “This is it. First and foremost, I’m an advocate, and I want to make sure we continue this. I have a conscience, but I want this to be very clear: If by some chance John Conroy fails and we can’t get an injunction to stop this, I’ll try to get a commercial license – because I have no choice. I can’t give up on the one thing I am most passionate about.”
In other words, if he can’t beat them, he’ll have to join them. “If I have to go to court to get one, then I will,” Derek says. “Thank God we have a Constitution, because no judge can agree that patients who have been forced to suspend treatment because of the cost of their medicine – and who have suffered because of it – is a good thing. In the end, I still want to offer the best quality at the cheapest price.”