Growers of medical marijuana say they will expand their product selection and provide better measures of medicinal content as Health Canada determines which companies will be granted licences to produce the drug commercially.
"Eventually, we are going to evolve it to a true medicine," said Brent Zettl, the CEO of Saskatchewan-based Prairie Plant Systems which, for more than a decade, has held the lone government contract to grow the pot that the federal department dispenses to many of Canada's medical users.
"We are going to be providing some choice for patients in more of a personalized medicine way, giving them more than just one brand," said Mr. Zettl, "giving them five or six if necessary."
The transformation at Prairie Plant Systems is taking place as Health Canada revises regulations around the growth and sale of marijuana for pain relief and other health concerns.
By March of next year, medical marijuana users will no longer be able to cultivate the drug in their own homes or purchase it from a designated small-scale producer. Instead, they will have to buy it from an expanded number of licensed commercial growers.
This means that if Prairie Plant Systems gets one of those licences, it will have competition – something Mr. Zettl said he welcomes.
"Up to this point, we've been competing with the street," he said. "I think it will be a great day when I don't have to play with somebody who doesn't have to play by the rules, which I have had to do for the last 13 years."
But, as a producer under the new regime, he may have to deal with customers who are unhappy about not being able to grow marijuana themselves.
"I know many who are upset by it," said Paul Lewin, a Toronto lawyer who specializes in marijuana issues, of the regulations unveiled earlier this month by Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. "It's going from growing your own to paying inflated prices."
In addition, Mr. Lewin said, the chemical content of cannabis varies dramatically, and a variety that is good for one medical problem might not be good for another. "Some people have developed, over time, strains that work particularly well for their condition," he said.
And it could become more difficult for patients to obtain cannabis legally.
Under the current system, patients fill out an application that includes a doctor's declaration that pot would be an appropriate treatment for their ailment. That application is forwarded to Health Canada, which grants permission to enter the medical marijuana access program.
Under the new regulations, doctors or nurse practitioners will write what amounts to a prescription that will be presented to the supplier. But the Canadian Medical Association points out that there is great uncertainty about marijuana's efficacy, potency and recommended dosage. The organization says many doctors don't want the responsibility of directly prescribing it, which means large numbers might say no.
But the aspiring commercial producers have an answer for that – research and development.
Fonda Betts of Medical Marijuana.ca in Abbotsford, B.C., said her company intends to conduct extensive testing and will be able to supply different strains to patients with varying medical conditions. "Which is a great thing for physicians out there," said Ms. Betts, "because one of the concerns of physicians is there hasn't been enough testing."
Mr. Zettl agrees. "What we've got to focus in on," he said, "is to get to the real science of this and change this up from anecdotal-based approaches to science-based information."
That means more strains, he said. But it also means delivering the drug in more medically conventional forms.
Dried leaves are just the first generation of marijuana, said Mr. Zettl. Eventually, he said, it could be dispensed in something like a pill, which would create more accurate dosages. "We are trying to start that process of bringing some legitimacy and some science and some measurables to this whole space."