If the Harper government goes ahead with the proposed changes to the medical marijuana laws, it will be creating a new criminal group: medical marijuana patients who grow their plants at home.
Under current legislation, qualified applicants can obtain a personal use production license (PUPL) from the federal government. Of the 22,000 people who are authorized to possess marijuana for medical purposes, about 14,000 have a PUPL. The proposed changes would make it illegal for these patients to grow their own marijuana. Instead, the government will license commercial producers so that all medical marijuana is provided through these suppliers. It sounds like a good idea until you look at the economics.
A friend of mine, whom I will call Jim, has had a PUPL since 2010. After some false starts, he can now produce the strains that provide him the greatest symptomatic relief for less than $2 a gram. This is likely a typical story for people like Jim, since the federal cost benefit analysis (CBA) of the proposed legislation estimates that home producers can achieve production costs of $1.80 a gram. However, the CBA also estimates that when the program comes into effect the cost to patients will be $7.60 a gram, or more than four times what it costs Jim right now.
Jim has a prescription for three grams of marijuana a day, which amounts to about 1,100 grams a year. Using the $1.80 a gram cost, his annual cost is $1,980. Under the expected prices in 2014, that cost would rise to $8,360 a year. Jim can't afford that price for a drug that relieves the symptoms of his chronic condition. As a result, he will likely continue growing marijuana even though he will risk being sentenced to the mandatory minimum six months in jail for growing more than six plants (his PUPL authorizes him to have 15 plants). Jim muses that he would require hospital care if he ever went to prison because he would likely be dead in a month if housed in a regular cell.
So who are these medical marijuana patients? According to the CBA, 72 per cent have multiple sclerosis, severe arthritis, spinal cord injury or disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS or epilepsy. The remaining 28 per cent have various conditions including chronic pain, Crohn's disease and hepatitis B and C. The mean income of the patients is reported as $30,000 a year, with one-fifth of the patients earning less than $20,000. How are these people expected to pay $8,360 per year for their medical marijuana? The only possible way most people could afford medical marijuana is to grow their own.
Jim has invested about $4,000 to grow his marijuana in a responsible way, and he pays for all the electricity required. There is a locked room in the basement of his house with a separate electrical circuit for each of two light/fan setups. The fans force air out of the room through a charcoal filter. The air filter removes the marijuana odour and the air in the rest of the house stays odour-free because of the negative pressure created by the fans. The air flow also ensures there is no moisture buildup. Outside, the fans have a noise baffle so they can't be heard beyond Jim's yard. Eliminating marijuana odour and minimizing fan noise are the two main ways of maintaining security, along with the most important guideline: "tell no one".
It seems reasonable to expect that those some patients who already have PUPLs will continue to grow marijuana even after that practice becomes illegal, simply because they can't afford the price from legitimate sources. It can be expected that this illegal practice will expand as the number of medical marijuana patients grows in the future. In 2014, the CBA expects there will be more than 40,000 people authorized to use medical marijuana, and 300,000 by 2024.
Two of the main reasons that the proposed legislation removes the right for PUPLs are the risk of fire and the risk of break-ins or home invasions. An alternative process to address these concerns and maintain the PUPLs for medical marijuana patients could be devised. For example, the federal government could:
1. Provide safety and health guidelines for growing marijuana in personal residences. Example drawings and equipment lists could demonstrate how to install a safe growing operation.
2. Empower (and require) local governments to issue PUPLs to patients who have a prescription for medical marijuana when their operations meet health and safety guidelines. The guidelines would specify the number of plants authorized to be on the premises. The patients could be charged a licensing/inspection fee on a cost-recovery basis so there would be no net cost increase for the local governments. The information included in the licenses would also be shared with local fire and police departments, and there could be a provision for inspections of the premises after a formal notice period. These licenses could be re-issued annually to provide the local government the opportunity to confirm the ongoing safety of the growing operations.
This approach would allow patients to safely and legally grown their own marijuana while informing the local fire and police departments of the locations of the growers, the number of plants that are authorized, and providing for inspections if there is a suspicion that something is amiss.
If the proposed medical marijuana legislation proceeds, thousands of medical marijuana patients will be forced by economic pressures to grow their marijuana illegally. From the standpoint of local governments, the location of those growers and the safety of their operations will be unknown until there is a problem. Canadian courts have found that individuals who need marijuana for medical purposes have a right to reasonable access to a legal source of marijuana. Reasonable access should also mean "affordable" access and the proposed legislation should continue to allow for personal use production licenses.
Craig Elder is a retired Certified Management Accountant who until recently was the Treasurer and Director of Administration for the Islands Trust.