More than 15,000 people are licensed to grow medical marijuana in Canada, but Health Canada has no record of staff ever inspecting any of the growers, CBC News has learned.
Health Canada implemented its medical marijuana access regulations in 2001. Under the program, people with "grave and debilitating illnesses" can be granted legal access to marijuana for medicinal purposes. People seeking a permit apply in writing to Health Canada, with a supporting document from a medical practitioner.
People who are licensed by Health Canada to possess medical marijuana can then apply for a permit to grow it for personal use, or to have someone else grow it for them through a "designated-person production licence" if they weren't able to grow their own.
The job of enforcing safety and compliance falls to 15 Health Canada inspectors, who are responsible for inspecting all legal drugs and pharmaceuticals in Canada.
But the agency said in response to an access to information request for a list of inspections that "no records were located which respond to your request."
One licensed grower who suffers from muscle spasms and digestion problems says Health Canada permits her to grow about 50 marijuana plants.
CBC News has agreed to conceal her identity because her licence requires her to keep her crop safe.
"They approve it based on what we say we are going to do, but I personally have never heard of anyone ever seeing an inspector," she said.
Some police organizations have expressed doubt about Health Canada's ability to enforce its own rules, including keeping the plants secure, destroying a crop if the yield is higher than the permit allows and making sure only the number of plants permitted are grown.
A 2010 report prepared by the RCMP for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police analyzed 190 cases of medical marijuana abuse. Just over one-third of the cases documented in the study involved trafficking or the production of more marijuana than permitted in the licence.
The report also found that at least 37 licensees had previous trafficking convictions. People who have had a trafficking conviction in the last 10 years are not supposed to be eligible.
Medical marijuana by the numbers
As of May 29, 2012:
- 19,482 people had a permit to possess medical marijuana.
- 12,649 had a licence to grow medical marijuana.
- 2,550 people were designated to grow.
"We don't have any understanding of background checks that are taking place for these people," said Calgary Staff Sgt. Tom Hanson, who is part of the Alberta Law Enforcement Response team. "We found that in some cases, organized crime has been involved in acquiring these permits, and that they are being used for illegal purposes and just basically hiding behind the permit."
Health Canada is aware of those concerns. In emails from 2010, the head of the agency's controlled substances unit said: "Health Canada has no real enforcement capacity, and our authority for suspension and revocation is very limited and rarely used."
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said changes may be needed.
"We have to do that inspection, we have to follow up. If that's not happening, I would have to investigate that," she said in late June. "I can also say the medical marijuana program is in need of reform."
Should Health Canada centralize medicinal marijuana production? Take our poll.
Health Canada is planning a system of mail-order medical pot, to be produced by industrial growers, the minister said.
"We are moving to eliminate personal grow-ops which will not require inspection. We are moving forward in looking at medical marijuana in terms of how any other prescription drug is accessed."
The grower who spoke to CBC's Duncan McCue worries she won't be able to afford her medicine under the new rules.
"If there are people abusing the system, those should be the situations that are addressed, not just blanket take it away from everybody," she said. "I liken it to many people who drink and drive and kill people, but just because you have a driver’s licence doesn't mean you can't buy alcohol."
Ottawa isn't expected to unveil the new medical marijuana rules until 2014. In the meantime, Health Canada keeps issuing individual growing permits for a program it struggles to police.