British Columbia

Medical cannabis coverage granted to UBC Okanagan students

The Kelowna campus's student union is first in B.C. to cover medical cannabis under its health plan.

Student union is first in B.C. to cover medical cannabis under its health plan

The student application process for medical coverage through UBCO is still being finalized. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Students at UBC's Okanagan (UBCO) campus will soon be able to get medical cannabis covered by their student health insurance plan.

The university's students' union has approved a pilot project to test the coverage of medical cannabis starting Sept. 1, 2018. They are the second post-secondary students' union in Canada to take this step.

In 2015, the students' union at the University of Waterloo agreed to cover medical cannabis under its health plan.

"What we're hoping ultimately is that it will improve the health and well-being of the student population by providing them with effective options for health care," said UBCO psychology professor and cannabis researcher Zach Walsh, who is overseeing the pilot project.

Walsh said many medications are already covered under the health plan, and since cannabis is often prescribed by a physician and is recognized as a medicine, it should also be covered.

Michelle Thiessen, chair of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy Okanagan, said $20,000 of the medical budget has been set aside for a year of coverage. The pilot project will end Aug. 31, 2019.

She said only students who are already registered as medical cannabis patients though Health Canada can receive coverage.

"We're going to collect data during this year and see how we can make this program better," said Thiessen, who is a UBCO masters student in clinical psychology.

"If the student union decides it's something they want to continue offering, then we can make an even better program."

Thiessen said the UBCO campus is an excellent environment to roll out the pilot project for various reasons.

Student-led initiative

The campus is in Kelowna, where cannabis dispensaries have operated for years. Also, Thiessen said the region is known for its plentiful marijuana crops, which has led to a lot of cannabis research at the university.

Thiessen said she is thrilled the pilot is going ahead because she has been promoting the idea to the UBCO student union for about two years.

"Without ... the student union president and other members on the board seeing the potential and importance of a program like this, it wouldn't have been adopted," Thiessen said.

Thiessen called the program conservative and said it is structured in a way that will limit students' ability to take advantage or abuse the coverage. 

"When you think about $20,000, we're not going to be able to serve that many students," she said. 

Thiessen said the application process it still being finalized, but will involve students applying to an impartial third party who will evaluate their eligibility for the program and determine what type of coverage they need.

With files from Daybreak South and Jaimie Kehler