Doctors, insiders react to changes to Canada’s medical marijuana program

In Feature Stories, Regulatory by Chris Riddell

Major changes have come to the medical marijuana program in Canada as of April 1, and Canadians are voicing their opinions on what the new rules mean for patients. We spoke to a Canadian physician who shared his take on Health Canada’s new Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), and let medical marijuana firms and Health Canada respond to his concerns.

The new legislation replaces the Medical Marijuana Access Regulations (MMAR), a program that has been in place since June 2001.

Health Canada says that the old program was vulnerable to exploitation. People were able to grow for themselves, and to purchase their medicine from independent, licensed growers. The government says this allowed people an easy to way to sell medical marijuana on the black market. To curb this abuse of the system, under the MMPR all growing licenses acquired under the MMAR will become void and only producers licensed under the MMPR will be allowed to grow medical marijuana. These newly licensed producers must meet strict guidelines relating to safety, security and business plans.

There are some improvements in the new program. It will make it much easier to access medical marijuana because people will no longer need to send paperwork to Health Canada for approval. Instead, it will be solely up to a patient’s doctor to determine if medical marijuana is an appropriate treatment.

Health Canada also lifted the medical requirements on being able to qualify for access. Under the MMAR a patient had to have at least one condition out of a list of possible ailments, but under the MMPR there are no such restrictions.

But there is cause for concern for patients, according to Dr. Jan Engelbrecht, a general practitioner from Brandon, Manitoba who has prescribed medical marijuana for numerous patients.

“I have a lot of low-income people who are being deprived of their ability to grow for themselves, and they’re pretty upset about that,” said Dr. Engelbrecht in a phone interview. “They don’t know what they’re going to do. They feel like they’re going to be recriminalized.”

Health Canada is also ensuring there’s a limit on how much marijuana patients are allowed to carry. Some patients use much more than the maximum amount and are worried about how they are going to maintain their daily dosages. Most are unwilling to pay street prices, especially low-income individuals and those on social assistance.

Under the MMPR, compassion clubs will be a thing of the past. All medical marijuana will have to be ordered online and couriered to the user. Dr. Engelbrecht is concerned that this new system will reduce the variety of strains available to patients. When able to grow it themselves, patients could tailor their treatments by using whatever strains treat their conditions the best. They could do this at a very low cost and now that right is being revoked, he added.

The controversial new program is causing a major stir, but many medical marijuana insiders say it’s for the best. Anton Mattadeen, managing director at British Columbia bio-pharma firm Envision BioMed, thinks we need to let it play out and see how the program develops.

“If everyone takes a step back and takes a look at what the government’s doing here, it’s actually pretty cool,” says Mattadeen. “They’re really taking a global leadership position. No other government around the world is quite as aggressive in terms of managing the process and creating standards. I really think that we kind of have to let it breathe a bit because it’s evolving over time, and it’s going to change over time.

“This is a work in progress here. If people apply the right voices to it, you can have some decent changes,” says Mattadeen.

Concerning the price, under the new system the open market will determine cost. Currently, prices are said to range from $5 to $7.50 per gram. Mattadeen feels that market forces will put downward pressure on the price and eventually make medical marijuana cheaper than before. Patients could also expect better quality and more consistent marijuana due to the strict regulations that licensed producers must follow.

Anton Mattadeen, Chief Strategy Officer & Co-Founder, MediJean Distribution Inc.

Anton Mattadeen, Managing Director at Envision BioMed

Health Canada holds a firm stance that the new system is a vast improvement on the old. In an emailed statement, media relations officer Sara Lauer wrote, “The previous program costs Canadian taxpayers millions of dollars each year. The new system will strengthen the safety of Canadian communities.

“Under the MMPR, all licensed producers have to meet rigorous physical security requirements, including a site design and security system that prevents unauthorized access,” she notes. “Key personnel are also required to undergo an extensive security clearance.”

As of April 11, 2014, Health Canada had received over 450 applications from aspiring licensed producers. Twelve firms have so far been approved as licensed producers.

(Three days after being interviewed for this story, Dr. Jan Engelbrecht passed away. We regret to hear this and send our deepest condolences to his family and friends.)

Photo courtesy Flickr user BenjaminsTone