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A woman smokes from a huge marijuana cigar during a demonstration in favor legalization of Marijuana in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, May 22, 2016.Esteban Felix/The Associated Press

Is eating a pot brownie each day to help with your chronic pain as bad for you as regularly lighting up a cigarette? Canadian life insurers say the two activities pose the same risk and demand the same higher premiums from clients.

The insurance industry's national trade association argues the standard policy among insurers of tacking on increased costs to marijuana users – regardless of whether they smoke, vape or eat the drug – is based on available research. The group also suggests pricier premiums could be due to the severity of a medical marijuana patient's underlying conditions.

But as medical marijuana use grows – and with legislation to legalize the drug just a year away – commercial producers and advocates are urging insurers to change policies that penalize people who use the drug, including the increasing number who ingest it in liquid form. At the same time, commercial growers are also lobbying health insurance providers to cover medical marijuana prescriptions.

The producers also say such hurdles are pushing patients away from the federally regulated system, in which two dozen licensed growers mail their dried cannabis and oils to roughly 50,000 customers, toward competitors selling untested products in illegal dispensaries.

Jim Pan, who has been a life insurance broker in the Vancouver region for the past seven years, said there are two ways most people divulge their marijuana use when securing a plan. If they smoke cannabis recreationally, they must answer yes to a catch-all question that asks if an applicant uses illicit drugs, he said. If they use it medically, they must list it as one of their prescriptions. (The insurer could refuse a claim and return a client's premiums, with interest, if they are found later to have lied about such usage, he said.)

Insurers rate marijuana users with the same risk factor as tobacco smokers, and charge slightly higher premiums for life insurance and roughly double for critical illness coverage, Mr. Pan said.

M.J. Milloy, an infectious-disease epidemiologist studying marijuana's therapeutic effects at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said the available medical research proves that "it is inaccurate and inappropriate to put cannabis on the same rung" as smoking cigarettes, in terms of harm. Former prime minister Stephen Harper was castigated by medical researchers and addiction experts during last year's federal election campaign when he declared pot was "infinitely worse" than tobacco.

"Tobacco use is going to be the prime risk factor in the death of something like 15,000 to 20,000 Canadians this year due to lung cancer," Dr. Milloy said. "There is no good evidence to suggest that people who smoke cannabis have a raised risk of lung cancer or other respiratory or cardiovascular diseases than people who do not.

"Microscopically, pathophysiologically, it's been shown that smoking cannabis does do things to your lungs, but there's never been any link proven between that usage and lung or cardiovascular complications."

Mr. Pan said that insurers have softened their views on medical marijuana in recent years, as members of the competitive industry constantly review the available science on various medical conditions to reduce their rates.

"They have become more lenient in terms of use of marijuana," he said. "Before, those who used marijuana, let's say once a week or even on a week-to-week basis, would be a decline – the insurance company would not cover them for life insurance or critical illness insurance."

Wendy Hope, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association, said the current practice of charging marijuana patients more might be tied to their underlying medical conditions. She said her industry is learning more about cannabis, but it will "take some time" before a sea change occurs in how it treats the drug.

Philippe Lucas, executive director of the Canadian Medical Cannabis Council, a trade group representing four licensed commercial growers, hopes that's not the case.

He noted that at a claims conference in Edmonton earlier this month, a crowd of 100 brokers was receptive to his presentation calling for lower premiums for marijuana users. Several brokers told him that their firms were studying the issue, but were hesitant to be "first out the gate" to make any changes. (Mr. Lucas is an employee of Nanaimo-based licensed grower Tilray, which has been a vocal opponent of its competitors in the pot shop sector.)

"There's really no scientific basis to be charging patients the same rates as tobacco users, from a life insurance perspective," Mr. Lucas said.

When he and his wife, who is five years his junior, applied for life insurance several years ago, he said, she was assessed a monthly premium of $13, while he had to pay $140 after divulging he used medical marijuana. About a year and a half ago, a test proved that he was free of hepatitis C, but he continued to use medical marijuana as a sleep aid, so his insurer refused to lower his premiums.

Mr. Lucas said he hired a broker to see if he could secure a cheaper plan, but it found that numerous firms treated medical cannabis patients with the same cautious approach.

"It's time for life insurance companies to revisit this policy and make sure that they have policies focused on science, reason and compassion," he said.

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