Medical marijuana patients using Health Canada licences to sell pot illegally
Lack of dosage guidelines means doctors can prescribe whatever quantity they see fit
A British Columbia man says Health Canada has handed out so many medical marijuana licences, it's cutting into his profit.
"This is how I make my living," said the man we're calling "Jack." "I grow it and sell it. Money is good — well, not as good as it used to be"
Jack is not his real name. He asked that we conceal his identity so that he could speak candidly about the medical marijuana black market, which he says is saturated with patients producing more than they need and selling off the rest.
"So many people do it now," Jack said. "I can go down a street in the neighbourhood and pick out probably 20-30 houses ... out of 50."
I know a lot of people that paid doctors, and they didn't have a legitimate reason, but the doctor would give it to them anyway.- "Jack," marijuana grower
Jack used to get almost $3,000 a pound for his bud but over the years dropped his prices to below $1,700 a pound because there's not as much demand.
"You get a doctor's note and they give you a licence to grow," he said. "I know a lot of people that paid doctors, and they didn't have a legitimate reason, but the doctor would give it to them anyway."
Jack, originally from Winnipeg, says he started growing marijuana illegally in the 1990s.
He got his first licence to grow seven or eight years ago under the former Medical Marijuana Access Regulations (MMAR). He said it was so easy, he got a relative to get one too so that he could grow and sell even more. Between the two licences he was allowed to grow 196 plants.
Today, he has a network of people who've obtained licences on his behalf so he can grow a lot more pot, at several locations. He declined to say how much more.
New regulations struck down
There were 38,000 medical marijuana licences issued under MMAR before, in April 2014, Health Canada replaced it with the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR).
The new regulations prevented patients from growing their own pot, and forced them to get their medicine from one of 35 licensed producers across the country.
In February, a Federal Court judge ruled that was unconstitutional and gave the government six months to come up with yet another new set of rules.
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"The evidence in Allard [v. Canada] was that people found they weren't getting what they needed through the government program," said lawyer John Conroy, who represented the four patients in the case against Health Canada. "They might get their stuff the first time, then they're on a waiting list, and so on."
The Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR) was created in August, and essentially combines the old MMAR and MMPR programs into one.
In court documents, RCMP said medical marijuana patients consumed between three and five grams a day, which they could produce with 5-25 plants. Police said they were seeing cases where patients were getting prescriptions that would allow them to grow hundreds of plants that they then sell illegally.
According to the Canadian Medical Association, physicians don't undergo any kind of medical marijuana training before prescribing it to patients.
There are no guidelines, standards or definitive research with respect to proper dosages, so doctors can essentially prescribe whatever quantity they see fit.
Health Canada doesn't inspect or check up on the people to whom it gives licences.
Serr says that lack of oversight has allowed organized crime to infiltrate the system.
"It is very easy for someone to have, to designate a family friend without a criminal record to get, obtain a licence for him, and then they are the controlling person in that organization, they are the ones actually making the money," said Serr.
Manitoba family charged with drug trafficking
In February, a Winnipeg woman was charged with a number of drug trafficking offences alongside her husband, her daughter and her daughter's common-law partner. The woman was previously charged in 2004 and 2011, but the charges were stayed after her son took responsibility in the first case, and her husband in the second.
According to court documents, the woman obtained a Health Canada licence in 2014 that allowed her to grow 122 plants and store 5,490 grams of marijuana at home.
When Winnipeg police raided her residence earlier this year, they found more than double the amount permitted, as well as packaging materials, a money counter and a loaded hand gun.
Task force report out soon
The federal government in June appointed a nine-member task force to come up with recommendations on the legalization of marijuana. The task force is expected to release its report at the end of November.
"We want to give the government the best advice we can, taking into account everything we've heard and learned," said chair Anne McLellan. "We feel a lot of pressure in terms of trying to get this right, knowing, based on the experiences of others, that there will be surprises. It's not going to be perfect."
McLellan said the task force is working to identify and understand the risks involved with legalization, and looking for ways to address them.
"We are focused on what a legalized regulatory regime would look like in Canada. However, we are not oblivious to the fact that as we legalize in this country, there will be a lot of interest from other jurisdictions, including our neighbour to the south," said McLellan.
Conroy estimates about 100,000 people are now authorized to grow their own cannabis in Canada. He wants to see the government create separate legislation to allow them to continue to do so after it's legalized.
"You can grow 15 kilograms of tobacco in your home for yourself and anybody over the age of 18 if you want. You can make your own beer, wine and spirits for yourself and your family if you want," said Conroy.
Police want to see the grow-your-own practice end. They think there are enough licenced producers to accommodate patients.
"I respect the court's decision that says people should have the access, reasonable access, and to grow their own, but I do think Health Canada has come a long way in getting enough commercial producers to produce enough medical marijuana for everybody," Serr said.
With files from Catherine Cullen and Bob Keating