Steven Stairs worries sick Manitobans will have their access to medical marijuana undermined once the federal government's new regulations replace mom-and-pop growers with corporate operations.
Stairs has been using and growing his own weed for more than a decade to ease glaucoma. He is one of 37,000 Canadians who have federal approval to grow marijuana for their own medical use or as "compassionate growers," whose crops are legally consumed by patients who cannot physically grow their own marijuana.
This system will expire in March, when the Conservative government's new regulations take effect, and medical marijuana will be produced only by large-scale growers.
Stairs is opposed to the regulation changes on three grounds: cost, quality and the belief the current system is working, for the most part. Medical marijuana users are getting their medicine for between $1 and $2 a gram, and it contains a TCH level that large-scale operations can't easily match, Stairs said.
As of today, Health Canada will stop accepting applications for personal-use marijuana production. Individuals requiring access to marijuana for medical purposes who do not already hold a valid production licence for a given site would either have to obtain dried marijuana from Health Canada (until March 31), or go directly to an approved licensed producer.
Under the new program, Stairs contends, prices could rise to $7 to $12 a gram for marijuana with far fewer pain-relieving qualities (TCH levels).
"The government gave us the right to do this for 13 years," said Stairs. "Then all of a sudden, they didn't oversee the program the way they should have... they had no way to keep track. How is that our fault? That's a slap in the face to people who are trying to save lives and the lives of their family members."
The problem, Stairs said, is the federal government has been unable to properly police the system, leading to significant quantities of medical marijuana entering the illegal drug stream.
"There has been manipulation and abuse of the system," Stairs said. "That hurts mom-and-pop (growers) because we get labelled as criminals."
A high-ranking RCMP officer interviewed by the Free Press last week acknowledged the amount of medical marijuana being siphoned into the illegal market makes it difficult to enforce given the proliferation of legal grow-ops.
"It will avoid a lot of the movement of legal marijuana into the illegal drug stream," said Cpl. Don Coker, the RCMP's grow investigation co-ordinator for Manitoba. "I think it will make a big difference."
The feds, meanwhile, believe the regulations will create a $1.3-billion free market for medical marijuana, with an estimated 450,000 "customers" by 2024.
However, marijuana activists are planning to lead an injunction against the reform.
Jade Ridge, the CEO of the Canadian Medical Marijuana Clinic in Brandon, is a member of a group called Manitoba Medical Access Regulations Coalition Against Repeal.
Ridge has been a medical-marijuana user for the past three years to treat the pain she suffers due to chronic arthritis.
"We talk about Section 7 in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and how it explains how we have the rights and freedoms to access medicine in a dignified manner," said Ridge. "Well, when it comes down to it... what is considered to be a dignified manner? You would think that you'd be able to grow your own garden."
Ridge said the coalition has a team of six lawyers. It's appealing for donations to "challenge the federal government based on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
The coalition's website, (mmarcoalitionagainstrepeal.com) says it sought the expert advice of constitutional lawyer John C. Conroy to "take on the legal battle that is assumed will take place."
Ridge said incoming federal regulations may put patients in a vulnerable situation.
"They might just end up taking a bigger risk, moving their garden somewhere else and when they get caught they're going to be susceptible to Bill C-10," she said. "I think that's a really serious problem."
Ridge, who runs Manitoba's only cannabis clinic, estimates the clinic has seen about 600 patients since it opened three years ago. The clinic does not sell marijuana.
The next six months are a transition period while Health Canada phases out the current system by March 31, while encouraging medical marijuana users to register under the replacement regime and to start buying from the new factory farms.
-- with files from the Brandon Sun