British Columbia

Medical marijuana users face higher price dilemma April 1

They might have a temporary reprieve, but pain-stricken Canadians who grow their own medical marijuana say they could soon face a difficult choice: go without the weed they need or break the law to get it.

Patients with prescriptions for medicinal marijuana face jump from 50 cents to $5 or more per gram

A dried cannabis plant is trimmed at the Farmacy in southwest Quebec. Health Canada is terminating its medicinal marijuana program that permits patients to grow their own cannabis. Except for those home growers covered by a recent Federal Court injunction, all of the country's prescription marijuana is to be supplied by licensed commercial entities as of April 1, 2014. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

They might have a temporary reprieve, but pain-stricken Canadians who grow their own medical marijuana say they could soon face a difficult choice: go without the weed they need or break the law to get it.

A Federal Court judge recently granted an injunction that allows thousands of patients to continue cultivating their own marijuana at home, or designate someone to grow it for them — at least until their legal challenge of planned new rules can be argued more fully.

But the federal government is determined to change the system, even if Tuesday's full-fledged launch will be delayed.

"Health Canada does not endorse the use of marijuana," said department spokeswoman Sara Lauer, indicating federal officials administer a medical pot program only because the courts have said there must be reasonable access to the drug.

"The previous program was open to serious abuse," she said.

While Health Canada sold medical marijuana for $5 a gram under the old system, prices are expected to average about $8 a gram initially, though the federal government predicts competition will make the drug cheaper as more producers enter the market. (John McCoy/Los Angeles Daily News/AP)

Growing marijuana at home introduces hazards including mould, fire, toxic chemicals and the threat of violent theft by criminals, Health Canada says.

The number of people authorized to possess — and often grow — marijuana under the old regime rose to almost 38,000 this year from fewer than 100 in 2001. The government argues that figure is likely to jump dramatically, compounding the problems that plague a program that cost $16 million to run in 2011-12.

It plans to allow only select commercial producers — 12 have been licensed to date — to grow marijuana under "secure and sanitary conditions" for distribution by mail to medically approved patients.

If the courts ultimately reject the legal challenge to the plan led by several home growers, anyone other than a licensed producer cultivating pot would be breaking the law.

MediJean, a commercial marijuana grow operation in Richmond, B.C., is one of several businesses expecting to supply the medical marijuana market in Canada under Health Canada's new system after April 1. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Licensed firms are offering marijuana at between $5 and $13.50 a gram, with at least three offering "compassionate pricing" for clients on a fixed income, as low as $3 a gram, Lauer said.

"The regulations introduce conditions for a competitive industry and it is possible that the prices will fall over time in response to competition and innovation."

One company, Mettrum, says clients who qualify for provincial or federal income assistance, or have an annual income below $30,000, can receive a 30 per cent discount on the first 30 grams of medical marijuana they buy each month.

Still, some patients argue the new system will deny them a safe, affordable supply of the particular strains of marijuana that make their often-debilitating conditions bearable.

Pennies a day, under old rules

Alison Myrden of Burlington, Ont., says it costs just pennies for her designated grower to produce the more than 100 grams of marijuana she needs each day to relieve symptoms of multiple sclerosis and trigeminal neuralgia, a disorder of the nervous system that causes especially intense discomfort.

Marijuana plants sit in pots in a small-time medical marijuana grow operation in Nelson B.C. The basement garden was licensed under Health Canada's previous access program, which comes to an end April 1st. (Bob Keating/CBC)

Myrden, 50, says she cannot afford to switch to a licensed producer.

"It's for the people who have money," she said in an interview. "The government has not taken that into consideration — that the majority of these people, including myself, are on full disability and completely marginalized."

A former Ontario correctional officer, Myrden is used to playing by the rules.

"I don't want to break the law," she said.

Others say they will have little choice if the Federal Court upholds the new system.

Paying 10 to 30 times more

Neil Allard, who helped spearhead the legal challenge, says in a court filing it could cost about $200 a day — $72,000 a year — to buy the marijuana he needs to get relief from symptoms of his serious neuro-immune disorder.

Currently the Abbotsford, B.C., man grows his own supply for between $200 and $300 a month.

Allard, 59, says even at $5 a gram it would cost him "more than my monthly income," adding he likely will have to "seek out a black market product" that is less expensive.

David Hebert of Surrey, B.C., the designated grower for his wife Tanya, faces a similar dilemma. He says it costs just 50 cents a gram to supply her with the two to 10 grams she consumes a day to control nausea, violent vomiting and pain from diabetes.

Hebert has told the court he looked online at the marijuana available from licensed producers and found the prices too steep.

Consequently if I am no longer able to produce for Tanya at a reasonable cost, we will have no alternative but to try and seek out alternative medicine through the black market or illicit market to assist her," he says in an affidavit.

"This is something we have always tried to avoid and concerns me insofar as our safety and security is concerned."