Everything you need to know about medical cannabis in Canada (now that recreational adult-use is legal)
Everything you need to know about medical cannabis in Canada (now that recreational adult-use is legal)
For most Canadians, October 17th, 2018 was the first day they were able to legally buy, grow, or possess cannabis.
But for at least 300,000 people living in Canada, legal cannabis was already a reality.
For nearly 20 years, medical cannabis has been available in Canada to those with physician approval.
We all owe a huge debt to the people who’ve stood up for their constitutional rights to consume, purchase, and grow cannabis to treat their illnesses and promote their wellness.
If it wasn’t for their tireless advocacy and activism, it is highly unlikely medical or recreational use would be legal today.
A lot of people are confused about whether the recreational legal market has replaced the system for people accessing cannabis for medical purposes.
It hasn’t (and for important reasons!).
There is still a system in place for medical users under the new Cannabis Act, which remains largely unchanged from the latest system (established in 2016). They are governed by different rules than those guiding recreational users.
Perhaps you’re a long-time medical cannabis patient.
Or maybe you’re a person who is interested in accessing cannabis for medical purposes for the first time.
You could be a recreational user wondering how the recent changes to the laws affect other Canadians using medical cannabis.
Whatever your reason is for wanting to learn more about medical cannabis in Canada today, here’s a handy, straightforward guide outlining everything you need to know.
Medical Cannabis in Canada: A Timeline
2000: Regina vs. Parker. In a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling, a citizen with severe epilepsy who had been charged and convicted of illegal possession and cultivation of cannabis was exonerated upon appeal.
The Supreme Court decided his rights to liberty and security of the person under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms had been violated.
2001: Health Canada establishes Marijuana for Medical Access Regulations (MMAR) program. Under this new legislation, physicians were empowered to approve cannabis for their patients by filling out a confidential form for Health Canada approval.
Approvals were based on need during end-of-life care or for specific illnesses. The approved illnesses included epilepsy, Multiple Sclerosis, cancer, HIV/AIDS, spinal cord injury, and severe arthritis.
Docs had to confirm conventional treatments had been tried or considered but found to be medically inappropriate.
Under the MMAR, individuals who were authorized by their doctors could only purchase cannabis grown by the sole producer licensed by Health Canada, Prairie Plant Systems.
They could also apply for a license to grow their own plants or to designate another person to grow on their behalf, which the vast majority of patients elected to do (+80%).
2013: Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) replaces the MMAR. Twelve years later, Health Canada changed the rules.
Patients could no longer apply to grow their own medicine (or let someone grow it for them).
The only way a person could access medical cannabis was to purchase dried flower from a Licensed Producer.
Rather than limiting access to a single Licensed Producer, commercial production was opened up to other companies under the MMPR.
2015/2016: Allard vs. Canada. Yet another successful constitutional challenge happened in 2015/2016. The policy preventing physician-approved cannabis users from accessing anything other than LP-produced dried flower was found to violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Here’s an under-one-minute video from The Globe and Mail in 2016 describing what this ruling meant to medical users at that time (and why the government had to come up with a new system allowing for personal medical cultivation ASAP).
2016: Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR). These revised rules added the need for a formal physician prescription including recommended daily dosage. Patients were required to visit their physicians at regular intervals to have their prescriptions reviewed and renewed.
The ACMPR rules reinstated the ability for patients to grow their own cannabis or designate a person to grow for them. Their prescription determined limits on the specific number of plants and the volume of cannabis they could possess. Users needed to register with Health Canada to get cultivation approval.
Licensed Producers could expand their offerings beyond dried flower, for example through value-added products like concentrates (e.g. edible oil).
Many online or storefront dispensaries and “Compassion Clubs” operated during this period. However, the only legal avenue for a medical user to purchase cannabis was via mail-order (after obtaining a prescription from their doctor and registering with an LP licensed by Health Canada).
October 17, 2018: The Cannabis Act. The 2018 Cannabis Act legalized recreational adult use. But under the newly-minted rules, the regulations for medical users haven’t changed a great deal.
Patients with prescriptions can still grow for themselves or have another person designated to grow on their behalf (within plant count limits defined by their registration certificates with Health Canada).
Medical users can still register with federally licensed LPs and buy directly from them.
Canadians who use medical cannabis can now access new channels, including the online platforms being operated in each province or retail outlets approved by the provinces/territories.
Sorry though, no edibles or concentrates are available through these channels until 2019, at the earliest.
Changes for medical users under the Cannabis Act include possession and personal storage limits.
The Cannabis Act doesn’t set a limit for Canadian adults when it comes to storing cannabis at home.
Public possession for medical users is limited to the lesser of 150 grams or a 30-day supply of dried cannabis as prescribed by their doctor (or its equivalent in another form). That’s in addition to the 30 grams every adult is allowed to carry in public.
Just make sure you also carry your Health Canada documentation… in case you need to prove you’re legit!
Potential Negative Consequences for Medical Cannabis Users Today
Although few medical users would deny other Canadian citizens the use of cannabis, some unfortunate early negative consequences have resulted from the legalization of recreational adult use.
The biggest problem has been the interruption of steady, reliable cannabis supply. Many medical users depend on accessing a particular cannabis strain or delivery format (for example, topical CBD oil).
After full legalization came into effect, the public demand has been so high that many LPs and retail channels have run out of popular products.
For instance, when a person relies on cannabis to control their symptoms an “Out of Stock” sign is more than just an inconvenience – it’s a serious health threat and life disruption.
Another issue is the tax. Canadians accessing medical cannabis were already being charged 13% HST on the products they were purchasing from their LPs.
Now they’re on the hook for an additional $1 per gram (or 10%, whichever is greater) in excise taxes (the same “sin taxes” being charged to recreational buyers).
If you agree taxing people’s medicine is wrong, take a minute and sign the petition to remove the tax on medical cannabis being led by Mike Hart, M.D.
Cannabis is the only medical prescription in Canada which is currently being taxed.
This is completely unethical, and it has prevented sick patients from accessing their medicine.
— Mike Hart, M.D (@drmikehart) December 4, 2018
Why getting a medical cannabis prescription is still important
When legalization of recreational adult-use cannabis was established on October 17th, 2018, a lot of people thought the rate of people getting medical prescriptions from their physicians would decrease or even disappear.
In fact, the exact opposite happened.
Legalization reduced the level of social stigma attached to cannabis in many people’s eyes. This has led to an observed increase in the number of Canadians accessing cannabis for medical purposes post-October 17th.
Some stigma barriers still need to be torn down. It might feel like the fight is over now that the constitutional right for Canadian patients to access cannabis as medicine has been upheld.
But there are still victories to be won.
Elias Theodorou is no stranger to a fight. In addition to knocking-out opponents in the Ultimate Fighting Challenge (UFC), the Mixed Martial Arts combatant from Mississauga, Ontario (nicknamed “The Spartan”) is also battling to eradicate stigma around medical cannabis use among athletes.
His physician prescribes him cannabis to manage the symptoms of Bilateral Neuropathy (a painful neurological disease), but he is banned from taking the medicine in the lead-up to his fights.
Theodorou’s passionate determination for breaking down the stigma around athletes using medical cannabis is obvious in this interview taken immediately after a recent UFC victory in Toronto, “This isn’t my fight. It’s for all Canadian athletes going forward.” (forward the video to 5:23 for his comments on cannabis).
Theodorou does a great job explaining why the legal recreational system could never replace his physician-supervised medical cannabis regime.
Here are some other really important reasons medical cannabis regulations were maintained under the new Cannabis Act legislation, instead of simply being removed.
Medicine for young Canadians. The first reason has to do with young people who benefit from accessing CBD-only cannabis for debilitating medical conditions.
Since only people who are of the age of majority can access recreational cannabis, people under the legal age with medical needs would be excluded from access if the medical system was dropped completely in favour of recreational channels.
Order directly from LPs. A second reason is the ability for medical cannabis users in Canada to access products directly via a Licensed Producer with which they are registered.
For example, if you live in Ontario where the only channel for online recreational sales is through the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) website, you can still purchase your medicine from an LP anywhere in Canada (if you’re registered) through that LP’s online portal and have it delivered to your door.
Fortunately, many LPs are reserving product for their medical clients even amidst the temptation of overwhelming demand from the recreational market.
Several LPs are also addressing the risk of medical cannabis becoming cost-prohibitive by offering Compassion Pricing for Canadians living on lower incomes.
Unlimited Personal Cultivation and Prescription Levels. Some Canadians suffer from illnesses which require a large quantity of cannabis on a regular basis (for example, some MS sufferers or individuals with severe epileptic conditions).
Allowing a professional healthcare provider to set this limit on a case-by-case basis ensures all Canadians can have their needs properly attended to.
And having the ability to cultivate cannabis for yourself or your loved ones is often the only affordable option (and consistent method of access) for people struggling with health issues.
Coverage under benefits. Finally, although it isn’t a widespread practice (yet!) those with medical prescriptions for cannabis can get some of their costs covered by a minority of workplace health insurance plans. In many cases, health plan coverage is only for specific ailments or symptoms.
If your employer sets aside funds into a health care expenses account, these funds are more likely to be accessible for covering medical cannabis than policies offered by workplace insurers.
If you’re a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces, Veterans Affairs will reimburse medical cannabis medication expenses up to three grams a day (or more if you have a qualifying condition).
GreenSeal Cannabis Co.’s commitment to the medical market
Our team at GreenSeal Cannabis Co. is well familiarized with the history of medical cannabis in this country.
We’ve been part of it for over a decade.
Our Master Grower and several other members of our team started growing legally under the MMAR program, growing on behalf of community members who needed a safe, local source of cannabis.
These trailblazers continue to uphold their commitment to meeting the medical cannabis needs of Canadians.
GreenSeal obtained its original license to produce at our location in Stratford, Ontario in 2017 under the ACMPR.
Today our focus is on innovating to improve the experience of medical cannabis users. We’re partnering with research institutions like Université Laval in Quebec City to develop enhancements related to growing products destined for the medical market, including high CBD strains.
To keep up to date with our plans to connect Canadians with medical cannabis, please join our mailing list (you can sign up at the bottom of this post).
Medical cannabis is here to stay in Canada
If it weren’t for the activism that led to the approval of medical cannabis in Canada nearly 20 years ago, the current recreational market would probably not even exist.
The good news is, medical cannabis in Canada isn’t going anywhere.
Patients of all ages will continue to get advice, prescriptions, and oversight from their doctors.
More and more people will continue to access cannabis for their medical concerns as stigma decreases.
The bad news is, it might take some time before the supply issues are smoothed out and patients can dependably access exactly the cannabis they need in their preferred format.
We hope LPs in Canada will continue to put the interests of their medical clients first.
After all, if it wasn’t for medical users there would be no such thing as a Canadian LP or adult-use cannabis industry in the first place.
Have you had any experiences with medical cannabis in Canada?
Any success stories or struggles you’d like to share?
Let us know in the comments below!