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Medicinal marijuana growers concerned over new pot regulations

While Health Canada hopes proposed marijuana regulations criminalizing home production of the plant for medical purposes will nip issues like safety and abuse in the bud, the news has local licensed growers concerned the rules could make it harder for patients to afford the medicine they need.

On Dec. 16, Health Minister Leona Aglukkag announced that the government will no longer produce and distribute marijuana for medical purposes – instead delegating the task to licensed producers who meet strict security requirements. The current Marijuana Medical Access Program (MMAP), which has grown from 500 users to 26,000 in the last decade, will be axed in favour of Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR).

Under the old program, participants are able to access medical marijuana through Health Canada at a heavily subsidized cost of $5 per gram, or become licensed to grow their prescribed allotment from home.

“The way the [current] system works essentially costs taxpayers millions of dollars each year,”  said Stephane Shank, Health Canada spokesman. “The government’s concerned that the program is open to abuse and has led to some illicit activity, and due to that, while the courts have said that there must be reasonable access to marijuana for medical purposes, we believe this must be done in a controlled fashion in order to protect public safety.

"Essentially, the goal is to treat marijuana as much as possible like other narcotics used for medical purposes by creating conditions for a commercial industry that would be responsible for its production and distribution."

He added that the new regulations will address concerns with fire hazards that have been a consequence of allowing individuals to grow at home.

Under the new regulations, health-care practitioners will be able to sign a medical document similar to a prescription, and then patients can purchase the appropriate amount from an authorized vendor.

Shank said it will be up to the licensed producers to set the price.

“From that, there is the possibility of an increase,” he said.

The target date to fully implement the new system is March 31, 2014, at which point all authorizations to possess and licenses to produce under the old program will expire.

“It’s a sad day for Canadians,” said Bob Estes, a licensed medicinal marijuana user who operates Organic Matters Compassionate Access Centre in Nanaimo. “Most people can’t afford it and apparently the prices are going to double. I don’t know how I’m going to afford $600 a day.

“It’s going to mean that a lot of people are going to be without their medicine."

Estes, who uses approximately 60 grams of medical marijuana a day for a broken back, topically and through ingestion, says the safety issues regarding growing have been blown out of proportion.

“Christmas trees burn down more houses than grow-ops," he said.

Estes is concerned that medicinal users rights are being taken away and that criminalizing licensed users growing from home will force their activities underground.

“Terry Parker won the right in 1999 for us to grow our own medicine in the Supreme Court, and that’s why the system is in place now,” he said. “We’ve already won the right, to do this is double jeopardy, it’s brutal."

Pam Edgar says she has concerns about the quality of commercially produced marijuana.

“If I’m going to have to purchase my medicinal-use cannabis from a government regulated source, are they going to be able to provide me with what I need as opposed to me growing the strains that treat my symptoms?" she asked. “Are they going to be that educated? Are they going to grow more than one strain?”

Edgar, a licensed grower who has used medicinal marijuana for the past 20 years to treat MS and a nerve injury resulting from a motorcycle accident, said education is key when it comes to marijuana use.

She said the majority of people do not know that there are different strains of the plant that treat different symptoms. Choosing the wrong strain can have adverse affects on the body, which makes buying off the street a dangerous proposition. Among other benefits, growing from home allows the user the relief of knowing what they're putting into their bodies.

“For many people, growing is very therapeutic – like growing vegetables, growing fruit, growing flowers,” Edgar said. “And for anyone to have three cannabis plants mixed in with their tomatoes, lettuce and corn, the cost difference is huge."

Health Canada is encouraging Canadians to participate in the 75-day comment period, which ends Feb. 28, 2013. Until that time, those interested in becoming licensed producers can work with Health Canada to apply for authorization to conduct research and development activities with marijuana such as testing plant materials and growing conditions on-site.

For detailed information on the new regulations, please visit http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/marihuana/future-avenir/index-eng.php

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