Marijuana activist Sam Mellace hopes to be the first licensed medical marijuana producer in Canada after spending the past 10 years running his “pretty much” legal operation.
The Abbotsford, B.C., resident has been producing marijuana since 2002 for himself and three other medical users, in accordance with current laws.
But starting on April 1, 2014, authorized users will not be able to grow their own pot – they will have to get it from licensed producers.
Mr. Mellace finalized an application to Health Canada on Monday for his company, New Age Medical Solutions, and his lawyers plan to send it by courier on Tuesday.
“I just want to be able to dispense so I can finally start making some money instead of being in the hole,” he said.
But he has stiff competition.
For 13 years, Prairie Plant Systems Inc. has been the only company producing legal marijuana and seeds on contract to Health Canada. The company submitted an application earlier this month.
“Up to this point, we’ve been the only ones working with the rules,” said the company’s CEO, Brent Zettl.
He said this has led to “unfair competition” from amateur operations because they have no requirements about quality control.
“They can do whatever they want,” he said, adding that now everyone will be on the same page.
Mr. Mellace said his system is advanced as well. At his compound, with security cameras and dogs, he said, he profiles the plants and checks them regularly.
“Our main objective is to help as many people as we can and give them the best product possible,” he said.
But he admits he has not always operated strictly to the letter of the law.
Mr. Mellace, who uses medically prescribed marijuana for chronic pain from a bad car accident about 10 years ago, does not like to smoke marijuana. Instead, he turns his crops into a kind of butter in a process that skirts the law. He uses the butter in cookies and even spaghetti sauce. He has also made a cream from marijuana for arthritis.
“We follow, pretty much, the rule of law,” he said, although he added that he occasionally processes more than the legally allowed amount when making his butter.
“I would say it’s a grey area,” he said.
Jeannine Ritchot, Health Canada’s director of medical marijuana regulatory reform, said the new rules answer concerns from municipalities and fire and law enforcement officials about public health and safety.
“The purpose of that is to make sure that consumers are having access to quality-controlled marijuana,” she said.
The ministry’s marijuana is supplied to authorized users by mail and she said the government has seen this as the safest way to provide it.
“There’s been virtually no episodes of diversion as a result of this system,” she says.
The new rules, announced in June, create a system of supply and distribution by licensed producers regulated by the government ministry. These producers will be subject to security requirements, inspections and good production practices.
The new system will run alongside the old one until April 1, 2014. Under the old system, people prescribed medical marijuana could grow their own plants and buy seeds and marijuana from Health Canada. Starting in April, authorized people will be able to get medical marijuana from private licensed producers only.
Instead of having to get a special license through Health Canada, patients will have to get a prescription for medical marijuana.
Mr. Mellace worries that patients may have trouble. “If [doctors] don’t sign prescriptions, that means there isn’t anything going out.”
Health Canada has said in a statement that it will increase the price – currently $5 per gram – to match that of “the first established licensed producer.”
Mr. Zettl believes this price change will reflect the initial cost of shipping.
“If this becomes an issue they’re going to be factoring this into the consideration price wise,” he says.
According to the most recent statistics released Dec. 31 by Health Canada, 28,115 people are authorized to possess dried marijuana in Canada. Of those, 18,063 have licenses to produce their own marijuana for personal use while 5,283 indicated they will get marijuana or seeds from Health Canada.
That means that once the new rules come into full effect, nearly 30,000 people will have to get their pot through the mail from a licensed producer.
Mr. Zettl welcomes the idea of having competition “on a level playing field.”
For Mr. Mellace the race is on.
“I’ve been fighting for this for years,” he says. “I live for this program.”