05/07/2014 06:00 EDT | Updated 07/08/2014 05:59 EDT

How To Navigate the New Medical Marihuana Access Program

Gary Morrison via Getty Images

*This blog previously appeared on Lift.

When Health Canada announced their new medical cannabis program in June 2013, both the old program, the Medical Marihuana Access Regulations (MMAR), and the new program, the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), were to operate concurrently until a supposed deadline of April 1, 2014. With the recent injunction and the general confusion surrounding the new rules, I hope this post can help map what has been going on in recent months.

Under the old program (MMAR), patients could access cannabis for medical purposes in three ways. They could purchase from Health Canada, they could grow for themselves, or they could designate a third party to grow for them. Individuals authorized under the MMAR had to fill out a lengthy application, signed by a doctor, which was sent to Health Canada for approval. Once approved, patients would receive the "Authorization to Possess (ATP)" cannabis for medical purposes - a pink slip of paper.

It's important to note that dispensaries were never part of the federal program, both past and present, and continue to operate as an act of civil disobedience. It can be confusing since law enforcement has generally tolerated best practice cannabis dispensaries because of their strict policies surrounding admissions, limiting access to only those with verified medical conditions. This is typically the case because cannabis dispensaries fulfill a need brought about by the inadequacies of Health Canada's legal channel, however their function is not legally recognized by the federal government.

Under the new regulations (MMPR), the only legal way to obtain medical cannabis is through companies authorized by Health Canada -- referred to as Licensed Producers, or LPs. What this means is that medical cannabis in Canada has moved to an open market model based predominantly on mail or courier type delivery, and personal/designated production rights have been tossed out the window (cue the injunction, which I'll explain below). Health Canada has also stepped back from production and distribution (via a contractor), which many patients would agree was severely lacking in quality and most certainly variety.

Some benefits to this new program include a much shorter "application", which is now more similar to a prescription. Health Canada refers to this as a 'Medical Document' -- one page that includes the doctor's information, the patient's name, grams per day, and number of days (up to 365 days or one year). Once a patient has this signed document, they would submit the original copy to the Licensed Producer of their choice.

This also means that once a patient submits their original prescription to a LP, they are, in a sense, "locked in" for the duration of the prescription. However, there is no rule which limits patients from getting more than one prescription from their doctor so they can access more than one LP. In this sense, you could ask your doctor to split your daily dose between two medical documents so that you can register with two LPs.

Some major drawbacks with this new program (although there are many) include the reliance on mail/courier delivery as opposed to storefront sales, issues with affordability, the exclusion of sold extracts (such as hashish, oils, tinctures and edibles), and the loss of personal production rights more generally. However, if you've been following the recent commotion, you'll know that patients were granted an important injunction -- won by lawyer John Conroy and the MMAR DPL/PPL Coalition against Repeal.

This decision means that patients who had both 1). a valid PPL/DPL as of September 30th, 2013, and 2). a valid ATP until March 21st, are still legally allowed to grow past the April 1st deadline until it is heard before the court. This challenge focused primarily on the loss of personal production rights and affordability under the new program. The could take up to one year, or longer. Without this injunction, patients were to destroy their plants before April 1st and sign a declaration by April 30th; otherwise Health Canada claimed they were going to notify the RCMP.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions such as how do patients register address changes in that time, and how to compensate patients who dismantled their grow-ops in anticipation of the new regulations coming into effect. Hopefully this is something that will be clarified in the coming months.

Two important things to keep in mind about this injunction: first, as a patient who is covered by this injunction, if you submit your ATP to a Licensed Producer, you forfeit your right to grow. Second, you can only carry up to 150 grams at a time, regardless of what your ATP says. This is similar to the rules for new patients under the MMPR.

Not surprisingly, Health Canada is appealing this decision. For more information and updates, you can visit John Conroy's website.


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