Jenna Valleriani is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto studying legal and illegal cannabis markets in Canada.
On Thursday, in response to the Federal Court ruling of Allard v. Canada, Health Canada announced changes to the way Canadians access medical cannabis. Rumours had been flying since last winter's court ruling, with some speculating that there would be a complete repeal of the current program, to address issues about access and affordability. Thus, many industry insiders, activists and patients were probably surprised by the new Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations, which replace the current program as of Aug. 24.
Many elements of this "new" program mirror the first medical cannabis access program in Canada, the original Medical Marihuana Access Regulations (MMAR), but Thursday's announcement is still one of the most progressive responses from the federal government to a medical marijuana case.
Access to medical cannabis in Canada has always been mobililzed and moved forward by court challenges started by patients who wanted access to their medicine without risking their liberty. The path was routinely blocked by the previous Conservative government, which dragged its feet every step of the way.
Aside from the government finally dropping the term "marihuana," the biggest change includes an allowance for personal production. As of Aug. 24, individuals authorized to use cannabis for medical purposes will be able to seek approval from their physician and register with Health Canada to grow pot for their personal use, or designate someone to grow it for them. The first medical cannabis program also included provisions for both personal and designated growing. But the new regulations will allow home growers to test their product at accredited laboratories, another step forward.
While this is good for patients and how they access cannabis (and should arguably have always been part of the regulations) the move will almost certainly disappointment municipalities and police forces, as there is little mention of any formal inspection procedures or regulation about how this new system will unfold.
When it comes to how limits on the number of plants allowed will be established, the government has suggested a formula that will vary based on the individual's prescribed dose and whether he or his designated grower will grow the plants indoors or outdoors (again, similar to the original program). This counters one rumour that authorized users would have been given a six-plant limit, which would have likely led to more court challenges.
One aspect in the new regulations likely to create resistance is the requirement of authorized users to purchase their starting materials, such as seeds and plants, from one of the 34 licensed producers (LPs). Considering that many of the first LPs in the current program bought their starting materials from authorized personal and designated growers under the old MMAR, it comes off as a bit ironic. There are also concerns that LPs may not have a particular strain that works best for an individual's symptoms, or that the conditions in which plants are grown in commercial ventures can't be matched in the home environment, producing subpar medication.
Licensed producers will continue to be the sole commercial producers and distributors of medical cannabis. The government has noted that it is still studying pharmacy distribution alongside other options, but has reaffirmed that storefront dispensaries are illegal, and remain illegal. This suggests the police crackdown on dispensaries will continue. In Toronto, for example, storefront dispensaries are raided each week, and other cities have seen a crackdown in recent months.
This new program is really aimed at providing an interim solution to address reasonable access; as Health Canada noted, "these changes should not be interpreted as a longer-term plan for the regulation of access to cannabis for medical purposes which is presently being determined as part of the Government's commitment to legalize, strictly regulate and restrict access to marijuana." As a relatively straightforward solution, it could be an indication that the government is considering growing rights under a legalized regime more broadly for all Canadians' personal use. While the government has traditionally been against home growing, it seems as if it might be turning a new leaf in time for spring, 2017.