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Activism in Canada's Medical Cannabis Industry is Evolving

10/20/2015 03:47 EDT | Updated 10/20/2016 05:12 EDT
Paul Velasco via Getty Images
Johannesburg, Gauteng Province, South Africa

Things are still moving pretty quickly in the medical cannabis industry in Canada. I've been thinking a lot about the people who have been a part of the cannabis industry since it was more just a grassroots movement. With the new industry fully in play, we are seeing growers from the older program become "master growers," and in other cases, we are seeing the people who worked on the dispensary side transition to working with a licensed producer. It makes sense -- these are in fact the "experts," many who have worked on the ground with patients for years.

There were certainly lots of underground discussions happening a year ago about dispensaries putting in applications to become licensed producers. It makes sense to put those who have worked with patients over almost two decades actually at the forefront of policy creation. To deny the history of medical cannabis access does a disservice to our understanding of access in Canada and what it's actually like for patients trying to navigate this system. We've seen the framing of cannabis in the media change rapidly -- I don't doubt much of this is owed to the professionalization of the new federal industry, alongside more research, more interest and, of course, more money.

Looking at social movement success, change is not just about pushing from the bottom up, but you also need people pushing from the inside out to make real progressive gains. Even when I started (and I'm a novice compared to most), the landscape was vastly different than it is now. It is almost common sense now that cannabis has medical uses. When my parents are talking to me about cannabis oils, you know it's gone mainstream. The new regulations have had a large part in breaking down barriers that were strongly held into place.

This also really made me start thinking about what activism means. I don't want to speak for anyone -- I am not even sure that any of these people define themselves as activists now -- but activism is not inherently a good or bad thing. It all depends on the cause and the actions. Typically, they are thought of as challengers to policy and practice. The focus is on achieving a social goal, rather than just making money or power.

Of course, the truth is that activism isn't well defined. It could be face-to-face conversations or it could mean organizing and marching in protests. It could be lobbying or it could be yelling. It could be using the courts to change the law, or engaging in civil disobedience every day. I always think back to Carl Hart's eloquent words to Marc Emery (even though the two had a bit of a rocky start at the CSSDP conference), "Sometimes to be heard, you have to be loud." Being loud has played a major role in how Canadians access cannabis, and in a variety of other important movements like protecting workers from exploitation and promoting equal rights for women.

It's more common when we think of activism for it to be solely something those with less power have to engage in to push for change. Probably because those with influence are usually able to accomplish their goals within conventional means.

Can the word activism also be applied to those in power? It's much less visible than the activism we think of in public spaces, but it also has an important role. Push from below, and push from the inside, both have a place in the creation of change. The latter tends to be a lot less glamorous, and involves a push to promote change within a really rigid bureaucratic structure, and often under very powerful political constraints.

I like thinking about the "ecology" of activism -- the flower can only exist with the support of nutrients, roots, stems, pollinators and light, reinforcing not just the idea that working together is important if patient care really is the ultimate goal, but how this happens across time and space. The interplay between time and space is really how humans have adapted and shaped this environment, contributing to this rapidly changing landscape we are seeing right now.

Things are moving fast, but in such an environment, the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) medical cannabis program will be better when it involves those who have a long history of doing this work and challenging the system.

The work we are seeing now is really important to patients -- particularly new patients -- who are caught in the crossfire of these two modes of access.

I am still seeing some great compassion clubs open in Toronto, some which have really taken a more holistic approach similar to the B.C. Compassion Club Society in Vancouver in the support and services they offer beyond dispensing medical cannabis. That is really great and patients will benefit from that space.

On the other hand, one of the licensed producers have partnered with a group of folks who have experience in the compassion club industry to open, community based information centres. These centres are a place for in-person education and information and a first under the federal regulations which only left room for telephone and online contact.

I can appreciate this advancement in the MMPR because it contributes some important things to access for patients, and operates under the regulatory scheme. Even still, some will choose the MMPR route, others will prefer to go with dispensaries. And so it is.

I would like to see, in the future, a more critical discussion about the idea that licensed producers are actively and vocally reaching to the "best parts" of the compassion club model, where compassion clubs have only ever been excluded from the official federal program -- all despite being part of Health Canada's policy discussions in 2004 and providing access for years when Health Canada left patients out to dry.

This is not the fault of licensed producers who are only working within the rigid regulatory scheme, but rather, Health Canada could have created a more inclusive model from the outset -- providing both regulated production via licensed producers and distribution from on-site locations. Licensed producers opening these community locations (although they can't dispense... yet) speaks to this void in the regulations as it stands, hence the continued proliferation of dispensaries in Vancouver, and more recently, Toronto.

In any case, I have a deep appreciation for the fast-paced environment, and I'd like to see the people who have spent years on the ground with patients present and contributing to change under the MMPR for the better.

This blog previously appeared on Lift.

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