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Sky-high prices sending medical marijuana users to black market

Medical marijuana users and their advocates say steep price increases since legalization, coupled with obstacles to access, are forcing many patients to turn to the illegal market.  

Licensed supplier drops low-cost strain from online catalog

Shaun Gricken used a low-cost strain of cannabis from MedReleaf to make his own CBD oils and other derivatives. The online supplier has now removed the product, and the next-cheapest option costs three times more. (Skype)

Medical marijuana users and their advocates say steep price increases since legalization, coupled with obstacles to access, are forcing many patients to turn to the illegal market.  

According to a survey commissioned by the Arthritis Society, there are as many medical cannabis users getting their prescriptions from illegal sources as legal ones, while two-thirds say they're rationing their supply of the drug due to worries about both access and cost.

It's harder to get medical cannabis, which was legal first, than it is to get recreational marijuana.- Janet Yale, Arthritis Society

CBC has spoken to several patients who said they prefer procuring their cannabis through legal means, but have turn to illegal suppliers to subsidize their prescriptions and cut costs.

"We just believe that's not acceptable," said Janet Yale, President and CEO of the Arthritis Society.

"That really undermines the ability of patients to have secure access to a quality product that is consistent in form and dosage, and that allows them to really get the benefits from having medical cannabis." 

Soaring prices

Currently, medical marijuana users must order their pot online, but the Arthritis Society is working with the Canadian Pharmacists Association to lobby the federal government to allow pharmacies to fill prescriptions.

"A thing that's a little bit bizarre, if not outrageous, is that it's harder to get medical cannabis, which was legal first, than it is to get recreational marijuana," Yale said.

But according to Shaun Gricken, soaring prices are the biggest impediment for people who rely on cannabis prescriptions.

 

"There's not a single online dispensary that comes close to street price," said Gricken, who uses cannabis to deal with severe PTSD and anxiety. 

"The downside with street drugs of course is that you're not entirely sure what you're getting," he said.

Cheap strain pulled

Gricken said the cost of filling his prescription through the legal online dispensary has more than doubled since September, as lower-cost strains disappear from stock. 

One of the largest licensed producers of medical cannabis, Aurora, removed a product called Solveris from its virtual outlet MedReleaf in October. It sold in Ontario for $2.50 per gram. The next-cheapest product available through MedReleaf costs $8.50 per gram.

Janet Yale, president and CEO of the Arthritis Society, says arthritis sufferers account for 60 per cent of medical cannabis users. (Arthritis Society)

Aurora spokesperson Michelle Lefler said the company dropped the cheap weed to "evolve with patient demand," which included adding products such as oils and soft gels. 

"Serving medical clients is our priority," Lefler said in a statement. "We will continue to offer a full portfolio of high-quality medical products."

Lefler also offers medical users a discount. But Gricken said even with the 25 per cent reduction he gets from MedReleaf, his monthly prescription has still tripled in cost.

"I'm rationing to the best of my ability, and suffering without," Gricken said. "And there's lots of folks like me."  

'I'm not happy'

Another patient, Dan, told CBC he's found a legal alternative to Solveris through another licensed producer at $3.75 per gram, but the cost of his monthly prescription has still risen from $120 to $180.

"I'm not happy," he said. Dan has had a prescription for 10 years after an industrial accident left him with debilitating back pain.

"So now I got to do a little bit of overtime, or cut back on something at the house, just to make sure I can get some medicine, and to me that is not right." 

CBC has agreed to use Dan's first name only because he subsidizes his prescription with black market cannabis at half the price.

Medical marijuana users and their advocates say steep price increases since legalization coupled with obstacles to access are forcing many patients to turn to the illegal market. 7:54

He said the illegal cannabis is unreliable, however, and sometimes affects ability to function. 

Both Dan and Gricken said they'd like to see medical cannabis covered by insurers. The Arthritis Society has managed to get its own employees' insurer to cover medical cannabis, and is working to encourage other insurance companies to do the same.

Axe tax, Arthritis Society urges

The Arthritis Society is also urging licensed producers including Aurora to axe excise and sales taxes from prescription purchases.

"You're putting pricing barriers on top of access barriers for Canadians that need alleviation of their symptoms for chronic pain, and I think that's just not sustainable," Yale said.

Dan said he's stop buying illegal weed in a heartbeat if cannabis was treated like any other prescription and made available at pharmacies.

"I'd prefer to buy my weed there," he said. "I would definitely like to see a licensed pharmacist instead of ... a 17-year-old." 

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story attributed a statement to Aurora spokesperson Laura Gallant. In fact, the statement is attributed to Michelle Lefler of Aurora.
    Nov 01, 2019 12:00 PM ET

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