Ottawa has given a commercial medical marijuana producer the first licence to sell cannabis oils through the federally regulated mail-order system, six months after a Supreme Court ruling forced Health Canada to allow access to edible forms of the drug.
Peace Naturals Project Inc., based in Stayner, Ont., announced Monday that it is the first commercial producer to be approved to sell cannabis oil. Fourteen other commercial producers are listed on Health Canada's website as being permitted to produce cannabis oil, but they are still awaiting bureaucratic approval to sell it. Currently, 20 producers are licensed to sell dried marijuana.
Health Canada updated its website Friday to reflect Peace Naturals' new status and said more licences to sell oil "will be granted imminently."
Peace Naturals issued a news release that said it looks forward to sales of the new product and "has always seen non-combustible consumption as the more viable solution for Canadians in need."
A dearth of clinical evidence on the efficacy of the plant's touted benefits – either dried or in an oil – means many physicians simply don't know enough about cannabis to recommend it to patients, while Health Canada has not formally approved cannabis as a medicine.
In June, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously that the federal rules for medical marijuana were arbitrary and counter to government's duty to protect the health of its citizens. The court said making patients buy only the smokable form of the drug subjected sick people to the risks of cancer and lung infections and could prevent them from choosing a more effective treatment.
That case centred around Owen Smith of Victoria, who was charged in 2009 with possession of pot and possession for the purpose of trafficking after getting caught baking edibles for a compassion club that sold them to medical users.
Advocates have long argued that edibles can offer many hours of relief from symptoms when the correct dose is taken. In contrast, they say those who smoke the drug must consume their doses much more frequently over a comparable period of time.
Industry insiders predicted the Supreme Court's "edibles" ruling might lead to licensed producers selling products such as cookies, lip balm or lozenges, but Health Canada, under the guidance of the federal Conservatives, approved only the sale of concentrated cannabis oil.
Many licensed growers are anxious to begin selling the oils, which have been offered by illegal dispensaries for years. Up until now, these regulated producers have been forced to sell only dried marijuana through the mail and have had underwhelming growth in their patient bases as they compete with illegal dispensaries, which are popping up across the country and can offer a variety of products and face-to-face sales.
Brent Zettl, CEO of licensed producer Prairie Plant Systems Inc., said his company's lawyer sent Health Canada a letter last week stating that with or without a final inspection it will begin selling its oils by Dec. 17. Mr. Zettl, whose company has grown marijuana under one federal system or another for the past 15 years, said the oils have been ready for sale since Oct. 18 and 1,600 clients who registered for the new product are getting tired of waiting.
"I don't expect [Health Canada] to be very happy about it, but it's the lesser of two evils," said Mr. Zettl, referencing his impatient clients.
Adam Greenblatt, executive director of Montreal's Santé Cannabis clinic and resource centre, said he was surprised at the "prohibitively high" cost of the derivatives – Peace Naturals is offering one 30-mL bottle for $125 and another with higher amounts of the drug's psychoactive THC compound for $240.
At his clinic, he offers to turn 30 grams of dried marijuana into a batch of edible oil for patients. They have to pay anywhere from $75 to $400 through the federal mail-order system for the marijuana and then another $80 for his services. But he said they end up with an amount of oil that dwarfs the quantity sold by Peace Naturals and lasts the average patient two months. He makes his oils with olive, avocado or coconut oil and insists on a $150 third-party lab test for quality when dealing with pediatric epilepsy patients, he added.
"I don't foresee an end to me making cannabis derivatives for patients because the restrictions placed on licensed producers are still completely arbitrary and ridiculous," Mr. Greenblatt said Monday.
The federal Liberal government has promised to legalize marijuana, though it has yet to say what that system will look like or whether it will affect the medical pot system.