In July 2001, Health Canada effectively legalized the possession of cannabis when prescribed by a physician (via the Marihuana for Medical Access Program or MMAP). Legal access, however, was limited to a single federal source, which offered one strain of cannabis. In early 2014, MMAP was replaced by MMPR, the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, which authorized medical marijuana production and distribution for licensed producers. This provided patients and their healthcare practitioners greater freedom of choice, as most licensed producers offered a much wider range of cannabis strains. (Notably strains with relatively consistent ratios of THC and CBD, the plant’s two most prevalent cannabinoids and the compounds currently most associated with medical applications.)  

So, contrary to those who predicted disaster, Canada has now experienced over 14 years of legal medical cannabis with overall positive outcomes.

On October 19, 2015, Canada’s Liberal Party gained a major victory in elections for Parliament. This is an important development in many respects, among them the prospect that the Liberals will follow through on their campaign promise to legalize and regulate access to cannabis for all adults, for both medical and recreational purposes.

It’s going to be harder for “the sky will fall” citizens and politicians to justify their dire predictions this time, as blind speculation has been replaced by real, quantifiable evidence of outcomes, due to the roll-out of cannabis legalization in Colorado, Washington and (recently) Oregon. None of these states has experienced unmanageable problems as a result. On the contrary, legalized cannabis is instead showing itself as a mostly welcome new addition, with benefits such as a decrease in drug arrests (along with, one assumes, a re-direction of law enforcement efforts toward addressing serious crimes) and a considerable new source of tax revenue. (In August, 2015, Colorado took in more money from cannabis than from alcohol.)

Of course, changing a federal law is different—and potentially more complex—than changing a law at a municipal or provincial level. Indeed, questions are already being put forth on the degree of prerogative each province or city will have in interpreting and instating the law. There’s a blizzard of other questions, including:

• When will the new laws be enacted?

• How and by how much will cannabis be taxed?

• How will tax revenues be allocated?

• How much cannabis will an individual be legally allowed to possess?

• Will “growing your own” be allowed? If so, how many plants?

• How will cannabis be distributed?

• How will cannabis products be labeled?

• How much will products cost?

The issue of most concern to patients, healthcare practitioners and Licensed Producers (LPs) is how the new laws will affect medical cannabis.

All is speculation at this point, but it’s reasonable to envision the government taking an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” approach to medical cannabis. Since taking off in 2014, the system seems to be working pretty well, and its advantages are undeniable:

• LPs operate in accordance with strict regulations and undergo regular government inspections to ensure compliance.

• Adherence to these regulations, along with the stringent testing procedures followed by most LPs, means medical cannabis patients can be certain the strength, composition and quality of their medicine is reliably consistent.

• Medical cannabis is meticulously monitored to avoid the possibility of contaminants such as mold or pesticides appearing in the product.

• LPs offer a range of products developed in accordance with patient and practitioner feedback. In other words, they provide the specific medicines that patients have found most effective.

It is possible the commercial market will stratify into two broad categories: standard grade and medical grade, giving consumers further choice.

Regardless of how the new system is set up, it’s clear the government has three priorities it aims to achieve: 1) Get organized crime out of the cannabis business, 2) Make it more difficult for those under 21 years to obtain cannabis and 3) Tax it.

Regarding that last goal, CMCC is actively lobbying to have medical cannabis “zero rated” in the same manner as is currently in place for other prescription drugs. This would effectively reduce the financial burden on patients through third-party insurance and—ultimately—provincial healthcare cost coverage.