Despite a Supreme Court of Canada decision that gives sick Canadians the right to use medical cannabis oils, Ottawa is reimbursing the country's veterans for dried pot only, potentially pushing them to less healthy options of smoking or vaporizing the drug.
That has prompted a group of commercial medical marijuana growers to urge Ottawa to expand medical marijuana coverage for former soldiers – a small but lucrative patient base for Canada's two dozen licensed producers – to include the ingestible oils.
More than 1,700 veterans have access to the largest publicly funded medical marijuana plan in the country, but they are covered only for the plant's dried flower. They have to use their own money for the oils. Licensed growers started selling the oils last year after the Supreme Court ruled Health Canada was putting sick people at risk of cancer and bronchial infections by sanctioning only dried buds.
"We've never heard a good reason why [oils are] not being covered," said Philippe Lucas, executive director of the Canadian Medical Cannabis Council, a trade group representing four licensed commercial growers.
Mr. Lucas, also head of patient services at Nanaimo-based grower Tilray, recently launched an e-petition sponsored by his local MP, New Democrat Sheila Malcolmson, asking Veterans Affairs to begin covering these extracts. Advocates have long argued that the correct doses of edibles can offer many hours of relief from symptoms. In contrast, they say those who smoke the drug must consume their doses much more frequently over a similar period.
A spokesman for the Department said in an e-mailed statement that "using marijuana for medicinal purposes is a new and emerging area in the medical field.
"As such, there is no commonly accepted practice for the use or dosage of specific products," the statement said.
The spokesman added that Veterans Affairs will announce its overhaul of the existing rules "in the near future." Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr said he was "shocked" in March when he learned of an explosion in the number of veterans being reimbursed for medical marijuana.
The trend is largely fuelled by groups in the Atlantic provinces connecting former soldiers who have post-traumatic stress disorder with licensed growers.
Trevor Bungay, a veteran of the Afghan war and a vice-president of Trauma Healing Centres, a network of four clinics that sign up former soldiers for medical pot, said many of his clients cannot afford to pay for their medicine.
"A lot of veterans are just receiving a pension, which is really nothing compared to what your regular paycheque was," he said.
Mr. Lucas said a recent survey of Tilray's veteran patients found about half ordered cannabis oils when the company launched the new extracts in March, believing Ottawa would cover them.
In late April, he said, bills the company sent to Veterans Affairs for these orders were returned without payment or explanation.
Tilray absorbed the costs, but informed the veterans it would not cover further orders, Mr. Lucas said.
Orders from those patients fell from 183 bottles in March to just four last month, he said.
Mr. Bungay added that many clients find it too difficult to make their own extracts or edible products out of dried marijuana.
"It's the same as brewing your own wine and your own beer – most people don't know how to do it and can't do it right," Mr. Bungay said.
Mr. Bungay and Mr. Lucas said the cost of medical marijuana is offset because many former soldiers are using it instead of pharmaceutical options such as opioids (for pain relief) and benzodiazepines (for anxiety and insomnia), which, in North America have been over-prescribed and often diverted to the illegal drug trade.
Soldiers have told The Globe that pot has also allowed them to ditch their erectile dysfunction prescriptions – also covered by Ottawa – and led to other benefits as well.
Government data released to The Globe and Mail in June showed that, over the past four years, the number of veterans prescribed benzodiazepines – with brands such as Xanax, Ativan and Valium – decreased nearly 30 per cent. Opioid prescriptions also shrank almost 17 per cent during that period.
The set of statistics was too small and unrefined to prove any concrete links between the use of the three drugs. But U.S. research has also shown significant declines in opioid overdoses in states where medical marijuana has been legalized, according to addiction experts.