Every two months, Chris Skidmore crushes about half a kilogram of dried marijuana, soaks it in isopropyl alcohol, then strains the liquid through a coffee filter and into a rice cooker to burn off the remaining fumes – creating his own cannabis oil. He swallows a few drops of the oil every morning before breakfast, along with a cocktail of vitamin, fish oil and glucosamine chondroitin pills, to treat his HIV symptoms.
Mr. Skidmore said he was diagnosed with HIV a decade ago and soon turned to medical marijuana, but he gave up smoking the drug about five years later, switching to oils because they didn't leave him congested.
"When I started eating it, a whole bunch of things stopped; I could breathe again and I didn't get my sinus problem any more," said Mr. Skidmore, an entrepreneur who lives in Port Coquitlam and makes greenhouses for licensed marijuana growers.
The federal medical marijuana program, which allows licensed growers to sell pot through the mail, was initally restricted to dried pot, but a Supreme Court of Canada ruling last year cleared the way for access to ingestible forms of the drug.
However, while most producers are able to produce oil, only three have been given the green light to sell it. And what little product is available has sold out quickly, making it difficult for patients to access it.
Health Canada said it's too early to provide stats on how much oil has been sold by the three producers that can legally sell oils. A spokesman said in an e-mailed statement that the department is in the process of scheduling and conducting further inspections to approve applications for another 11 growers.
Mr. Skidmore, a cannabis advocate for several years, says he can't afford the cannabis oil sold by a handful of Canada's licensed commercial producers, and every patient he knows buys their oil from illegal dispensaries or small-scale producers such as himself.
Using marijuana he grows with a licence under the old federal medical marijuana system, the material in each batch costs him about $100, which he says works out to an overall cost of about $5 to $10 per gram of oil, depending on how the process goes. That's much cheaper than the $25 to $50 per gram at Vancouver's dispensaries, or the $90 charged by one licensed producer, Mettrum, for one 40-millilitre bottle of oil, the cheapest rate offered through Health Canada's system.
On Wednesday afternoon, that producer released three varieties of oils to patients. At a limit of one bottle per customer, two of the three types had sold out by Thursday afternoon, with the last 30 or so remaining bottles expected to sell out that evening, according to a sales representative.
Many licensed growers are anxious to begin selling since last year's Supreme Court decision. Some had previously complained about only being able to sell dried marijuana. At the same time, they are competing with illegal dispensaries, which are popping up across the country and can offer face-to-face sales and a variety of products, including oils.
Dispensaries also don't abide by the stringent guidelines on THC concentration and viscosity that licensed producers must meet.
Brent Zettl, CEO of licensed producer CanniMed, said his company has filled about 1,000 orders since it was approved to sell the oils about two weeks ago and has much more stock available. He said the process of creating concentrated oils has proven trying for many producers and the bureaucrats tasked with ensuring these products are safe.
Meanwhile, he says the long delays in approvals "frustrates patients, for sure."
M.J. Milloy, an infectious-disease epidemiologist who is studying the therapeutic effects of marijuana at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said these oils appeal to patients who might not normally consider using cannabis. That's because oils offer clear and repeatable dosages, compositions that can greatly reduce the psychoactive effects and the ability to eat – not smoke or vaporize – their medicine, he said.
"To be honest, the stigma around smoked herbal marijuana still probably puts a lot of people off," Dr. Milloy said. "When it's presented in more of a medical package, I think there are more people out there who might consider it."
Medical-marijuana patients have provided myriad anecdotal evidence that the drug helps them with a variety of ailments, from chronic nerve pain to arthritis, but clinical trials proving its efficacy on many conditions are still lacking, Dr. Milloy said.
Before last fall's federal election, his colleagues at the centre wrote an editorial in the Canadian Journal of Public Health calling on doctors to stop prescribing frequently abused opioids to those with chronic pain, in favour of cannabis. Dr. Thomas Kerr said medical pot has also been proven to relieve spasticity and "wasting" associated with HIV/AIDS, as well as nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.
In the Supreme Court ruling last summer that enshrined a patient's right to buy edible forms of the medicine – such as cannabis oils – from federally licensed growers, judges also accepted that cannabis has anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic properties.