Medical marijuana users brace for tax hike

While legalization is good news for many who use marijuana recreationally, medical users are bracing for a financial hit. Starting in October, an excise tax of $1/gram or more will be charged on all marijuana products, including those obtained with a doctor's prescription.

When marijuana is fully legal in October, recreational and medical products will be taxed the same

Jean-François Turcotte uses medical marijuana to control pain caused by injuries from a motor vehicle collision. He pays hundreds of dollars per month to fill his prescription, and is bracing for even higher costs after an excise tax takes effect in October. (Susan Burgess/CBC)

While legalization is good news for many recreational users of marijuana, those using it for medical reasons are bracing for a financial hit from new taxes.

Medical marijuana is already subject to HST, which does not apply to other prescription drugs. But when legalization takes effect in October, users will also have to pay an excise tax of $1 per gram, or 10 per cent of the retail price, whichever is greater.

That's the same tax being applied to recreational sales.

"I don't think it's fair that I have to pay tax on medication to begin with… and now they're adding more taxes to it," said Jean-François Turcotte, who uses medical marijuana to relieve the pain of injuries from a car accident three years ago.

Jean-François Turcotte says new taxes on medical marijuana will make it more difficult for some patients to afford. 0:37

Turcotte got a prescription for medical marijuana from a doctor about a year ago, he said. Previously, he'd been prescribed opioids, which he said plunged him into a severe depression, and caused a host of other health problems that entailed more pharmaceutical treatment.

But while the opioids and other medicines were covered under a drug plan for clients of Ontario's social assistance program for people with disabilities, or ODSP, the cost of medical marijuana — which Turcotte said has replaced his other drugs entirely — is not.

That means he's on his own to pay as much as $720 a month to fill his two grams per day prescription. Shipping costs, HST and soon the impending excise tax are layered on top of that.

"It's massive," Turcotte said. "My ODSP covers basically what my cannabis consumption is for the month. That doesn't leave anything for the bills, so I have to rely on my wife's salary to pay for everything else."

Intended to deter abuse 

The government has previously said that matching taxes on recreational and medical marijuana are needed to deter recreational users from abusing the regime for medical access.

In a statement on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Department of Finance said the taxation framework "will support the Government's twin goals of keeping cannabis out of the hands of youth, and profits from its sale out of the hands of criminals."

However, the advocacy group Canadians For Fair Access to Medical Marijuana calls the government's approach both wrongheaded and insulting.

Before trying medical cannabis, seen here in a large bottle at the far right, Turcotte's daily drug regimen included all the other medications seen in this picture. (Susan Burgess/CBC)

James O'Hara, the group's president and CEO, said the hoops people must jump through to get a prescription for medical marijuana and permission to use it are sufficient to prevent abuse. 

Pricing medical marijuana too high for its many low-income users will also drive people to the very black market the government is trying to destroy, O'Hara said. Already, many patients who can't afford the full cost of their prescriptions from a licensed producer are turning to dealers and illegal dispensaries, he added.

O'Hara also objects on principle to the application of what's commonly called a "sin tax" to medication.

"For the government to take the position to disincentivize the use of medicine for patients is completely unacceptable," O'Hara said.

'Perpetuates the stigma'

The government will not apply the excise tax to products which contain no more than 0.3 per cent THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive component of cannabis.

O'Hara estimates that exemption would help fewer than 0.1 per cent of medical marijuana users. 

Turcotte said he'd be pleased to use products with less THC, but said they're typically much higher in price and the selection is very limited.

Trina Fraser, a partner at the law firm Brazeau Seller in Ottawa who represents some licensed producers of medical cannabis, called the distinction between lower- and higher-THC products "very artificial."

"It actually perpetuates the stigma against certain medical patients… and also perpetuates this myth that we keep hearing over and over again, even from medical professionals, that THC doesn't have any medical benefit," Fraser said.

Canopy Growth, which produces marijuana at its Tweed facility in Smiths Falls, Ont., says it will absorb the cost of the impending excise tax for its medical customers. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Licensed producer vows to absorb cost for medical customers

With the new tax looming, Turcotte is considering his options.

At least one licensed producer, Canopy Growth, has offered to absorb the cost of the new tax for its medical customers, which Turcotte said could motivate him to switch suppliers.

Otherwise, continuing to fill his prescription will mean new sacrifices, he said, now that he and his wife have already burned through their savings to cover his drug costs.

"Maybe drop the internet, drop the cable package that we have," Turcotte said. "Things of that nature."

About the Author

Susan Burgess

Associate Producer

Susan Burgess is an associate producer on CBC Radio's All In A Day. You can reach her at Susan.Burgess@cbc.ca or on Twitter @susanmburgess.