Medical patients should come first if there is a marijuana shortage, says patient advocate


Medical patients should come first if there is a marijuana shortage, says patient advocate

By: Jacquie Miller – Ottawa Sun – Oct. 9, 2017

An advocate for medical marijuana users says patients are concerned their supply is going to be pinched by the looming demand for recreational weed.

It’s a worry sparked by an inconvenient truth: if Canada legalizes recreational marijuana, as planned, by next summer, there probably won’t be enough pot to go around.

Health Canada says it expects growers to give priority to medical patients who rely on cannabis for everything from chronic pain to insomnia.

But an organization representing medical marijuana patients says the government needs a policy to ensure that happens or sick people might be at risk when the market opens up to a flood of social users.

“It’s important that these products continue to be available as we head into legalization,” said Jonathan Zaid, executive director of Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana, an education and advocacy organization. He said he hears from patients who are worried.

“It’s concerning that there is no specific supply guarantee for medical cannabis patients. We are really advocating for Health Canada as well as the industry to ensure that the medical market is fully supplied, to ensure patients have reliable, consistent access.”

Private growers licensed by Health Canada to sell to medical users will also supply the recreational pot market. Many growers are expanding as fast as they can. Health Canada is approving licences more quickly: the department streamlined the procedure for obtaining them and hired more staff.

Still, some analysts say there won’t be enough marijuana for everyone by July 2018, when the federal government has promised recreational pot will be legal.

Zaid says medical patients already have trouble obtaining what they need. Health Canada says that, overall, there is enough medical marijuana available. However, growers can run out of particular strains or products, Zaid said.

The number of people signing up for medical marijuana is also increasing rapidly. There were about 200,000 patients registered in Canada at the end of June, compared with about 30,000 just two years earlier.  The number has been growing by about 10 per cent every month, according to Health Canada.

Will those patients get first dibs on the cannabis supply?

In a statement, Health Canada said it expects growers will “prioritize sales to individuals who require cannabis for medical purposes over non-medical sales.”

“Health Canada would continue to closely monitor patients’ access to cannabis for medical purposes during implementation of the proposed legislation. The Department will continue to work with patients and their advocates to ensure that individuals have reasonable access to cannabis for medical purposes.”

Six growers surveyed by the Sun, including three of the largest — Tweed, Aurora and Aphria — say they will take care of their medical patients.

“We know this is on people’s minds, based on feedback and chatter on social media,” said Jordan Sinclair, spokesman for Tweed in Smiths Falls.

“Patients are worried about it.”

Tweed’s parent company, Canopy Growth Corp., has promised that sales to any patients signed up by July 1, 2018 will be given priority over recreational cannabis sales. The company will track how much and what type of cannabis medical patients use, and reserve that amount, said Sinclair.

Tweed recently signed an agreement with New Brunswick to help supply that province with recreational pot. If other provinces move to lock in their supply, Canopy Growth will be in a better position to forecast its inventory precisely, said Sinclair. The company is growing quickly and has facilities across the country.

Aurora, another major grower, is building a huge greenhouse at the Edmonton airport. Like Canopy, it’s preparing to supply both the Canadian recreational market and customers overseas.

Aurora recently began selling in Germany, and hopes to add other European countries as they legalize medical cannabis, said executive vice-president Cam Battley. There is a huge global demand for quality, regulated medical cannabis, and Canadian companies have the chance to become leaders in supplying it, he said. Canadian growers are already exporting to a handful of countries, including Australia, Brazil, Chile and New Zealand.

However, Battley emphasized that Aurora will sell to medical patients in Canada first. “We’ve made that commitment very strongly and we’ve been repeating that for two years now.

“Some people have been skeptical that (growers) will prioritize medical sales, but for us it’s non-negotiable.”

Christina, a 42-year-old Ottawa woman who buys medical marijuana from Aurora to help with chronic pain and PTSD she suffers after a major car crash, said she’s concerned that prices might go up if there’s a shortage.

She enjoys “compassionate” pricing from Aurora, paying less per gram because she’s low-income, surviving on disability payments. Christina didn’t want her last name publicized because there is still a stigma surrounding cannabis use. She was relieved the company has promised to sell to patients first. “I believe them.”

Hydropothecary, a Gatineau grower, has a “guaranteed supply” policy for its patients, and that will continue, said CEO Sébastien St. Louis. “We wouldn’t put a patient in a situation where they register with us and we don’t have a product.”

The Canadian government plans to maintain a separate stream for medical patients. However, there may be some changes. “Additional details on how the licensing, production and medical access regime under the new Act would be administered are being developed,” according to Health Canada. “Once developed, the Government plans to consult broadly on the proposed licensing regime with the provinces and territories, industry, Indigenous peoples and other interested stakeholders.”

Some in the industry expect the government will allow medical marijuana to be sold at pharmacies. Now it’s only available online, directly from the growers. Growers and patient advocates are also lobbying hard for medical marijuana to be exempt from all taxes.

The pot shortage

How long will it take for Canada’s cannabis growers to supply enough pot for both medical patients and recreational users?

One cannabis analyst estimates that might happen around 2020. That’s when the market will reach “equilibrium” — supply will equal demand — in the best estimate of Greg McLeish, an analyst for brokerage firm Mackie Research Capital Corp.

The black market will “continue to be the principal source of supply for the majority of recreational users for the foreseeable future,” according to his Sept. 20 report.

McLeish used a variety of government and private studies to estimate how many people use recreational pot now, how many may try it after it’s legal, how much the medical market will grow, and how much cannabis growers will be able to supply.

He estimates the combined demand for both medical and recreational marijuana in 2018 will be 795,000 kilograms — a market value of $6 billion.

Licensed growers now have funding in place to increase their production capacity to more than 720,000 kg a year, he estimates. But it takes time for companies to build or expand facilities, obtain rigorous Health Canada approvals and harvest the crops.

Growing cannabis at that magnitude is unprecedented, said McLeish’s report. Companies will face regulatory and operational risks.  “A whole new industry is being built from the ground up.”

McLeish is critical of Ontario’s decision to sell marijuana through the LCBO, saying that will not curtail the black market. There will be 40 to 60 stores to start, growing to 150 stores across the province by 2020, as well as online sales. That will leave the market underserved and ignores the importance of good customer service, said McLeish’s report. “Recreational consumers want to be buying from knowledgeable ‘budtenders,’ not LCBO employees that lack an understanding of the cannabis culture.”

And what will happen in July, when the government has promised recreational pot will be legal? “There are going to be lineups,” said McLeish in an interview. “There are going to be shortages.”

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