A year ago, Brina Levitt became a believer in the power of medical marijuana after she crashed her bike on one of the vestigial railroad tracks that line the streets of Vancouver's historic Granville Island.
The 36-year-old Vancouver woman says she was left with debilitating back pain and insomnia that over-the-counter pain medication and sleeping pills could not fix. She had smoked marijuana only a few times in her life, but her partner suggested it might help the pain. She says smoking made her cough too much, which irritated her back, but she found relief from her sciatica and sleeplessness when she ate pot cookies.
Now, Green Penguin Delights, the company she and her partner, Andrew Muir, a geologist, founded last fall, have agreements with about 80 of Vancouver's 98 cannabis dispensaries to sell their bath bombs, pot-infused olive oil, brownies and two kinds of cookies. Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that all medical-marijuana users have a right to such edibles.
"I got into this industry because I saw that there was a need for responsible, professional companies who do potency testing and are operating in commercial facilities," Ms. Levitt said. "As a patient, I wanted that and I wanted to give other patients access to that."
The court's decision has no jurisdiction over Vancouver's booming pot shops, which operate and buy their products illegally. But it has emboldened Ms. Levitt and fellow advocates who say Canadians should have easy access to edible forms of medical cannabis, which they argue are safer and offer more lasting pain relief than smoking the drug. Canada's licensed producers are forbidden to sell edibles, and many are unclear whether they might one day be allowed to after the ruling, which outraged federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose.
Vancouver's illegal dispensaries sell edibles, but city council plans to ban them under new regulations that could be voted on as early as June 22, when public consultations are expected to finish. The city said last week that despite the Supreme Court ruling, its regulations would not permit edibles.
Patricia Daly, Vancouver's chief medical health officer, recommended banning the sale of edibles, which she deemed too risky as long as they are unregulated by Health Canada. City council will consider allowing cannabis oil. Dr. Daly's provincial counterpart, Perry Kendall, has called for any edibles that are sold to be properly tested and clearly labelled so people understand the strength of the cannabis they are taking.
Ms. Levitt and about 19 other producers of edibles and extracts are petitioning council to allow them to do just that. They say they can regulate themselves to weed out poor quality practices and products.
Ms. Levitt and Mr. Muir acknowledge the dearth of clinical evidence supporting the use of marijuana for treating many illnesses, but say science has proven it is effective for nausea in cancer and AIDS patients, relieving chronic pain, stimulating an appetite, fighting inflammation and helping control seizures.
The couple operate from a commercial bakery "somewhere in the Lower Mainland," where they render butters and oils and bake. They say about 80 per cent of their costs are for buying shake – the base ingredient made of the marijuana plant's less-valuable stems and leaves – from small producers licensed under the old federal system, which the courts are reviewing. Every week they also spend about $150 getting each batch independently tested for potency.
Unlike the standard forms of dried marijuana, where the strength of the more-psychoactive THC and more-medicinal CBD compounds are measured in percentages, edibles are often labelled according to how many milligrams of THC each one contains. Ms. Levitt says that allows users to "go low and slow," as their packaging says in bold print, to avoid a "greening out," which can happen when the drug is still working its way into the bloodstream and people eat more because they are not getting the instant buzz a joint offers. Green Penguin's labels also clearly state their products are intended for those 19 and older who hold licenses under Health Canada's new medical marijuana system.
But Dr. Daly said even with comprehensive testing and labelling of the product and food preparation courses for the bakers, edibles are a danger to children as long as they are marketed as brownies, cookies or candies. She said a U.S. studyfound the rate that children five years and younger were being exposed to marijuana rose almost 150 per cent between 2006 and 2013. Researchers behind the study said the rise in exposure could be linked to the growing popularity of edibles.
In B.C., the provincial poison control centre recorded 203 marijuana-intoxication calls in the past 18 months, of which 14 involved kids five and younger, Dr. Daly said. Last week, she told council two-thirds of the 63 people sent to hospital with marijuana intoxication during this year's downtown 4/20 pot party had eaten cannabis.
On Monday, she dismissed Mr. Muir and Ms. Levitt's claim that those statistics relate more to the poor quality of food handling than the danger to the general public. She added that most these patients got sick long before the 24 hours it takes for food poisoning symptoms to begin.
The couple say they have sunk about $50,000 into the company and render about 54 kg of pot-infused butter every two weeks, which is added to the other ingredients to make their products. Ms. Levitt and Mr. Muir say they provide a valuable product to patients too sick or inexperienced to do complex conversions and concise measurements to achieve safe dosages.
"Having to do all of that when you're sick and tired? You're going to make some mistakes in your math and it's not going to be pretty," Ms. Levitt said.