Article by Michaela Freedman, High! Canada
Most of us already knew that the legalization of cannabis on October 17th was essentially a technicality. If you’re a recreational user there is a really good chance that you’re still resorting to your usual illicit sources – and I don’t blame you! But for those that use cannabis medically, legalization has been a nightmare.
Ever since the Canadian government announced their goal to legalize cannabis recreationally, medical patients have been worried about the implications, and rightfully so. Commercial Licensed Producers (LPs) have struggled to meet the demand for medical patients. It’s not uncommon to find that specific medicines are out of stock. The month leading up to legalization, LPs reached out to their patients to let them know that they would not be neglected and that they’d prioritize their medical sales. Most have not lived up to this promise.
Cannabis is unique because it’s both a medical and recreational drug. Because cannabis is now a commodity, LPs have shifted their entire focus onto meeting the demands of the recreational market, at the expense of medical users. This has happened because there are no regulatory requirements for LPs to prioritize medical sales. Many claim that they do, but this has not been the case.
Not only are there supply shortages but strains are less consistent month to month, quality has declined, and to top it off, medical cannabis is now subject to an excise tax. Cannabis is not being taken seriously as a medicine.
Legalization has created a severe supply shortage, preventing patients from accessing their medicine. As a medical patient myself, I’ve struggled with finding a reliable stock of CBD oil. To avoid running out of my medicine, I’ve registered with multiple LPs in hopes that at least one of them will have the right product for me. Having to seek out multiple suppliers is problematic in itself since specific strains and products differ between LPs.
Supply shortages are causing considerable delays and this poses a serious problem for some patients. For patients in palliative care, for example, obtaining their medicine is extremely me sensitive. To avoid running out of your medicine, LPs advise patients to stock up on their medicine, but this is an expense that most cannot afford. And even when a product does finally become available, patients like myself can never be sure that their medicine is the same as it was last month.
Since production has ramped up to accommodate a massive new market, quantity has overtaken quality. Companies have always made it clear that patients may experience slight variability in their products, such as the concentration of THC, but general quality has declined greatly with legalization.
Just recently, for the first me since I’ve been a patient, I received dried flower that was extremely desiccated. When dried flower loses its moisture it becomes more dense, causing it to weigh more. As a result, my container was almost half empty, leaving me with less cannabis than I would have received if it was at its usual moisture. The cost increase due to lack of quality is frustrating to say the least, considering how expensive cannabis is to begin with. But even if the quality is maintained, patients now have to factor in the newly introduced excise tax.
The issue is that the cannabis tax framework does not differentiate between the recreational or medical markets. Unlike other prescription medication, medical marijuana is subject to provincial and federal sales taxes, and now with legalization, an additional excise tax. The cost of medical cannabis has always been the biggest deterrent for patients, a majority of whom have to pay out-of-pocket. The increased costs leave patients in a tricky spot. Many are tempted to revert back to less-taxed and more dangerous opioids, for example; medical cannabis was introduced to avoid this exact problem.
The recreational market and its prioritization has posed a real setback for the progress of legitimizing medical cannabis as a first-choice treatment for patients. Who would want to use medical cannabis if there’s no guarantee it will always be available?
Medical cannabis is still in its infancy in Canada and improvements in the system are necessary if it’s going to be treated as a legitimate medicine. Until it is, it will continue to be threatened by the recreational market. To fix this, here’s what will need to happen.
The government needs to put policies in place to prioritize medical cannabis sales by recognizing cannabis as a valid treatment, not just an alternative to conventional medications. Currently, products that have less than 0.3 percent THC are exempt from the excise tax, which completely negates the medicinal properties of THC. If this threshold is eliminated it will pave the way for all medical cannabis to be included within the purview of accepted medical prescriptions. Once it is recognized as a valid prescription, medical cannabis will no longer be subject to taxes, and insurance companies will be much more likely to cover it – also a huge revenue opportunity for LPs.
Fortunately, Health Canada is moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. To meet the growing demand for medical cannabis and safeguard supply, the government has already started to loosen their stringent licensing requirements. Less onerous licensing regimes are democratizing the supply chain, allowing LPs to open more facilities and enabling small-me growers to get in on the action. These initiatives will undoubtedly increase the volume of cannabis made available for all users, ensuring a stable supply.
By not favouring the recreational market, LPs will increase their steady source of revenue as more and more patients are being prescribed medical cannabis, leading to beer coverage. This will also help shed the stigma around cannabis as a medicine.
Canada may have been too fast out the gate with legalizing marijuana. Considering we are the first developed nation to do so, I think our response to stabilize the supply chain puts us on the right path. As the industry evolves, medical cannabis will become more accessible and affordable. For this to happen, we need the cooperation of key stakeholders to commit to prioritizing their medical programs.
When they do, more patients will benefit and eventually, as the industry extends Canada’s global reach, so too will patients across the world.