The head of one of Canada's largest medical marijuana companies says recent pesticide recalls have been a "real wake-up call" for the industry, and he wants the sector and Health Canada to do a lot more to ensure it doesn't happen again.
Aphria Inc. chief executive officer Vic Neufeld, who ran vitamin giant Jamieson Laboratories Ltd. before moving to medical marijuana in 2014, said stronger enforcement is needed to prevent future problems.
Mr. Neufeld would like to see Health Canada take a pharmaceutical approach to the industry, by introducing a strict product-testing regime across the sector and recovering the costs of those added enforcement measures by charging fees to the industry.
This method is a common way other sectors are regulated, including the industry he operated in while at the helm of Jamieson, Mr. Neufeld said. Forcing companies to fund the government's inspections is one way to solve any staffing or resource problems Health Canada faces, and keep companies from trying to flout the rules, he said.
"They really need to come to the table now to tame the Wild West," Mr. Neufeld said. "I really want [Health Canada] to get more involved in the enforcement of testing. And I'm willing to pay whatever the cost is, multiplied by all the licensed producers, whatever the formula."
His comments come after the industry was hit by a series of high-profile recalls late last year, when two companies – Mettrum Ltd. and OrganiGram Inc. – were found selling medical marijuana that contained banned pesticides that can cause health problems if inhaled.
Health Canada said in January it had done inspections of those companies, but was not testing their plants for banned pesticides. The regulator scrutinized operating procedures, but not the actual products sold to patients.
Mr. Neufeld said it wouldn't take much for the regulator to introduce a beefed-up inspection force that could visit industry members regularly and randomly to test their products for safety, and that the cost could be borne by the sector as a condition of its licences. He said some companies would object, because it would add expenses, but noted it should be considered a cost of doing business in an industry that sells medicine.
"Health Canada should take a more pro-active role to come out with things that are closer aligned to the pharma industry," he said. "If they really want to up their game from an enforcement perspective, and they don't have the budget – charge us all."
Last week, the industry group representing about half the sector voted unanimously to begin testing products on their own, at independent laboratories. They plan to post results for consumers to see, so that patients can verify that there are no contaminants. But Mr. Neufeld said new measures are required for the whole industry.
Health Canada's oversight has come under scrutiny in light of the pesticide recalls. The regulator said it conducts "multiple unannounced inspections of each licensed producer every year" to verify that companies are complying with the rules. Health Canada said it conducted more than 300 of these inspections, at 30 licensed producers, in the 2015-16 fiscal year.
However, several companies have told The Globe those inspections are usually a matter of checking paperwork and procedures. Thomas McConville, a former employee of Mettrum said inspectors regularly examined the company's records, but never tested the plants. On one occasion, Mr. McConville said he was told to stop using green pen to fill in paperwork, and that a standard colour was required for all records.
Meanwhile, Mr. McConville said he witnessed another employee spraying banned pesticides on the plants, despite knowing it was prohibited, then hid the chemicals behind the ceiling tiles in the company's office to evade detection when Health Canada visited the site.
Health Canada has placed new conditions on the licences of OrganiGram and Mettrum, requiring them to undergo regular testing of their products. However, OrganiGram was unable to determine the source of the pesticides found on its plants, while Mettrum investigated Mr. McConville's allegations and reported back to Health Canada that it found nothing. The company was essentially allowed to investigate itself.
Patients affected by the recalls have criticized Health Canada's handling of the investigation, saying not enough has been done.
A group of Canadian military veterans who say they are suffering health problems after consuming the tainted marijuana have called on Health Minister Jane Philpott to launch a formal investigation into the matter, saying the department has failed to examine the problem properly and fairly on behalf of patients.
Scott Wood, a retired military policeman, says he has talked to roughly 100 patients who are each reporting similar side effects after taking the products, which he argues can't be coincidental. He said the symptoms – which range from severe rashes to breathing problems that have sent him and others to the emergency ward – differ greatly from Health Canada's public statement that the risk of serious health consequences was low.