OTTAWA - A veteran marijuana grower in British Columbia says the Conservative government's new medicinal pot system may lead some patients to illicitly grow their pot outdoors.
Under proposed changes taking effect next year, personal-use production licences will be eliminated, making it illegal for patients to cultivate their own marijuana. Only commercial producers will be licensed in the new system.
The 28,115 Canadians currently authorized to use dried marijuana will have to rely on pricier government-sanctioned growers for their medication, rather than growing it themselves or relying on a designated grower.
A notice posted by Health Canada on the new Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations estimates the current $1.80-a-gram cost for marijuana will rise to $8.80 a gram when the program takes effect.
The average additional cost to consumers will be about $166 million a year for 10 years, the notice estimates.
Mik Mann, a 55-year-old activist with a personal-grow licence, says his current doctor's prescription allows him to use up to seven grams of marijuana a day, which he cultivates from 35 plants in the basement of his home in Port Alberni, B.C.
"Right now the cost to me growing is probably a dollar a gram," he says.
"At $8.80 a gram it's pretty clear I won't be able to afford it. It will leave me without a cheap source of medication."
Health Canada says 72 per cent of applicants for an authorization to possess marijuana licence suffer from arthritis, spinal cord injury, spinal cord disease, multiple sclerosis, cancer, AIDS/HIV, or epilepsy.
The Harm Reduction Journal, in a 2012 assessment of Health Canada's medical marijuana program, found 61 per cent of Canadian medical-marijuana users have an income below $30,000.
Like other licenced users, Mann has personalized his plant strains to fit his ailments, but under the new legislation he will no longer be allowed to possess them legally.
He says that once personal stashes of marijuana run out after the old licences terminate, some able-bodied patients may turn to illegally planting their seeds in forests to avoid expensive medication bills from commercial suppliers.
"It's called 'guerrilla growing,' which is essentially growing (marijuana) on property that doesn't belong to you," he says.
"With new (police) technology out there today, like drones, spy satellites and helicopter patrols, the days of growing big patches of marijuana in forests are basically finished."
Instead, Mann says growers may spend more effort planting as many as a hundred plants spread out over multiple locations to avoid detection, and in the end only harvest from roughly 20 plants.
Easily accessible and cheaper cannabis on the black market may also attract patients who want to avoid potentially long wait periods for commercial pot.
"Why would you send money away to somebody and then wait to get marijuana? A lot of people will say: 'For the same price I can just go down the street and get some pretty good weed from a guy I know,'" said Mann, who suffers from spinal arthritis and degenerative disc disease.
Health Canada has made provisions in the new regulations for strict quality control on the production of commercial marijuana.
However, marijuana produced by Prairie Plant Systems Inc., Health Canada's current contracted manufacturer of dried marijuana, is unpopular among many patients: 13 per cent of all current program participants use it versus the 64 per cent who get it under licence elsewhere.
"Is it just going to be what we call 'commercial weed?'" said Mann, referring to marijuana in the future program. "If so, I want the chronic high-test stuff myself, not that commercial bunk."
The new regulations were created by Health Canada after a consultation process with public health professionals, program participants and law enforcement about the shortcomings of the current Marihuana Medical Access Program.
Police have said they have trouble investigating suspected illicit production operations working under the cover of a grow licence.
"I think (misuse of the licence) is minimal," says Mann.
"It makes no sense. Why should people that are obeying the law be screwed over because of a few people that decide not to?"
Thursday marked a nation-wide protest by activists opposing the new regulations. They're targeting offices of Conservative members of Parliament across the country, and conducting a 'phone jam' aimed at disrupting the office of the minister of health, Leona Aglukkaq.
A week remains until Health Canada's Feb. 28 deadline for public consultation on the proposed legislation.