Brian Cross – Jul 27, 2016
Dr. Christopher Blue sees it “all the time,” the senior with a serious condition like prostate cancer who has bought medical marijuana from some seemingly legitimate source, and is seeking a prescription for it.
“What they’re in possession of is illegal,” says the Windsor family doctor. One of the few local physicians writing prescriptions for medical marijuana, he is concerned about the public confusion over how the system works. Patients are sometimes shocked to learn they’re breaking the law, he says.
Sometimes acting on bad advice, or because their doctor doesn’t prescribe marijuana and they’ve had to forge out on their own to find a source, they’ve purchased the product from a storefront dispensary, an online source, or someone who grows their own. What they buy is packaged to look like serious, medical-quality stuff.
“These people have no criminal record, they’re no different from your parents or my parents, and they are thinking they’re doing something correctly to help their disease or cancer,” said Blue, who believes that cannabis can “absolutely” help a lot of patients, particularly as an alternative to highly addictive and dangerous opioid painkillers whose use have reached epidemic proportions in Ontario. But he wants people to go the legal route.
“The only way I can prescribe cannabis is through a licensed producer,” he said, referring to the companies (19 in Ontario) approved and licensed by Health Canada to supply medical marijuana. “I have to tell (patients) that any cannabis product that is obtained outside a licensed producer is illegal and illicit and I don’t want to be part of it.”
The current situation was described by one local observer as the Wild West.
There’s a lot of confusion in the industry, agrees Ronan Levy, the director and general counsel for Canadian Cannabis Clinics, which since opening a location on Turner Road in Windsor last September has seen more than 1,000 local patients seeking medical marijuana. He said many people think they can buy marijuana at the clinic. What the clinic does is take referrals from local doctors, set up an appointment with a clinic doctor, go through all the paperwork required to show the patient has a condition that medical marijuana can help and that he’s already tried conventional treatments. Then the clinic doctor meets with the patient and if it’s warranted, provides a prescription that goes directly to one of the licensed providers. The package is delivered to the patient’s home.
Levy said the public don’t understand the difference between clinics like his and a dispensary, which many people believe are legally allowed to sell medical marijuana. A few months ago police in Toronto raided a number of dispensaries, but many reopened within days. So there’s a misperception that the medical marijuana system is wide open, he said.
The second-largest licensed producer in Canada, Leamington-based Aphria, recently announced the start of a $10-million expansion that will more than double its greenhouse space (from 43,000 square feet to 100,000) and its sales (from more than 2,600 kilograms annually to 6,000 projected once the approvals arrive and the product it ready next year).
The expansion is needed to cope with “significantly” rising demand, said CFO Carl Merton.
“We believe we’ll be sold out of our product come February or March if we didn’t do this expansion,” he said. “Every month we’d be selling more than we’re producing.”
But while sales are growing, there’s still a large number of people going the illegal route for medical marijuana, said Merton, who said he’s heard that for every gram sold legally in Canada, there are six grams sold out of Vancouver dispensaries.
“Are there a couple of extra steps, do you have to actually go see a doctor and get a medical document? Yes, absolutely,” Merton said of the legal route. He said while Aphria obviously has an interest in increasing the number of people who go the legal route, he also believes people don’t want to break the law.
“A lot of people, once they’re told they’re doing it illegally, are very upset because they thought they were doing it legally,” he said. “That’s kind of our nature as Canadians, we’re not out to necessarily break the law.”
Currently, the medical marijuana market is probably worth $150 million to $200 million, Merton said. But there are projections showing that by 2024 that market will be $1.3 billion. As well, if the Liberal government goes forward with plans to legalize recreational use, that market would amount to $2 billion to $3 billion within two years, growing to $5 billion in five years.
Everyone in the industry is waiting for Aug. 24, the deadline a judge gave the federal government to come up with new changes to its medical marijuana regulations to make access easier and more affordable. Those changes could include rules to allow people to grow their own, but until then the only people who can are those who had licences to grow for themselves or someone else, under older regulations. Patients who’ve been approved for medical marijuana since new regulations were adopted in 2014 aren’t allowed to grow their own and have to get it from a licensed producer.
All these evolving rules make it confusing for people to understand what’s legal and what’s not.
“A lot of people come and talk to me, they figure I’m going to (provide them with marijuana), but no,” said Jack Kungel, a Kingsville man who credits cannabis with rescuing him from terminal cancer and years of miserable poor health brought on by a major workplace injury, diabetes, overweight and being on more than 22 medications. Today, at age 64, he says he’s the healthiest he’s been in his life. Because he’s grandfathered under the old regulations, he said he’s allowed to grow his own, and for a woman with MS he’s been helping for 14 years.
While he can’t sell or supply others, he said he helps with tips on the right strains to order from the licensed producers for their particular condition, and advice on converting the product into products like cookies, oils and even suppositories that don’t get you high.
“What it’s allowed me to do is function,” Kungel said, describing the decades-long efforts to make it illegal the biggest lie on the planet. “It’s medicine,” he said.
In Windsor, there are currently no dispensaries, but many people seeking medical marijuana are getting it from black market suppliers, according to marijuana advocate Jon Liedtke, who earlier this year opened Higher Limits, a medical marijuana lounge on Ouellette Avenue. He said “every day” he gets people coming in thinking they can buy medical marijuana there.
“There’s a lot of confusion for patients,” he said.