Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Shakeup in medical marijuana rankles

Patient bemoans loss of growing privileges

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Steven Stairs, who is legally blind and uses medical marijuana to treat his glaucoma, examines his plants Monday.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Steven Stairs, who is legally blind and uses medical marijuana to treat his glaucoma, examines his plants Monday. Photo Store

New rules on medical marijuana will make it too expensive and too hard to purchase, Manitoba patients fear. Health Canada, meanwhile, says the rule changes will make purchasing medical marijuana safer and more efficient.

A new program, called the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulation (MMPR), will take effect on April 1, 2014, replacing the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR). The new program was announced June 19, although discussions about changes to the existing program were already taking place in December 2012.

That's when Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced the government would no longer produce marijuana.

Under the current program, patients who qualified were allowed to grow their own marijuana if they followed certain rules. They were also able to buy marijuana from Health Canada directly. Under the new rules, patients will no longer be able to grow marijuana. Instead, approved private companies would be able to produce and sell marijuana to patients.

Steven Stairs says the new rules will, among other things, mean many patients will no longer be able to afford marijuana. He runs the Manitoba branch of the Marijuana Party of Canada and is licensed to grow marijuana under the old program and smokes it to control his glaucoma.

Stairs also represents students with disabilities at the University of Manitoba, and said the cost of marijuana will go up if it is grown by private companies.

"Basically, the cost of growing it goes from a dollar a gram when you're growing it to $10 a gram when you're buying on the streets," Stairs said.

He doesn't believe companies will sell their marijuana any cheaper than that.

"The fact that the federal government is leaving it open to small business to regulate the prices, rather than setting regulated prices in place, that's absurd," he said.

Jade Ridge runs Manitoba's only cannabis clinic, which educates about and prescribes medical marijuana to those who need it, according to the clinic's website. The clinic does not sell marijuana.

Ridge said the potential increase in the price of marijuana under the new government program will have an immediate impact on patients.

"It makes it harder financially to access medication because it's not covered by any private pharmacare or covered by the government," she said.

Jeannine Ritchot, director of medical marijuana regulatory reform at Health Canada, said the price shouldn't go up under the new program. She said the aim of the new program is to create a competitive environment for the companies that want to sell marijuana.

"In a competitive market environment, there's not going to be incentive for one company to set a really high price," Ritchot said.

The idea for the new program was to treat marijuana like any other medication, she said.

"You can't manufacture your own Tylenol... in your own home, so we're trying to move to a state of play where we treat marijuana the same way we treat all those other drugs," said Ritchot.

Another problem with the new regulations could be a lack of access, Stairs said. Though the program is scheduled to be fully in place by April 1, 2014, currently there are no licensed producers, he said.

Ritchot said Health Canada is currently processing producers.

"We've received a number of applications and are working with applicants to get the first licences out the door," she said.

Ritchot said if a producer doesn't exist in every area, the ability for producers to ship marijuana to patients will make that unnecessary.

Ridge said the rule changes will have a big impact on current and future patients.

"It's going to be a huge change. And change is good in some aspects. Some of these changes are good. But as far as not being able to grow for yourself anymore, I just think that's really wrong," she said.

oliver.sachgau@freepress.mb,ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 23, 2013 B2

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Updated on Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 1:04 PM CDT: replaces photo

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