Under pressure from impatient medical marijuana patients, the Canadian government's health agency, Health Canada, announced on December 21 that the first batch of marijuana grown under government contract to supply licensed medical marijuana patients will be available as of January 1. But confusion within Health Canada about how to package, label, price and distribute it means that actually getting medical marijuana into the hands of patients could be months away.
The Canadian government last year awarded a $4 million contract to grow medical marijuana to Prairie Plant Systems, which grew the 250 kilogram crop in an underground mine in Flin Flon, Manitoba. Currently, medical marijuana patients must grow marijuana themselves or have someone grow it for them. The Prairie Plant contract would provide a third source of supply for the 680 Canadians so far licensed as medical marijuana patients.
"Marijuana from Prairie Plant Systems will be made available to researchers and patients who have received licenses to possess," said a Health Canada spokesman. He also reported that the marijuana had been tested and been found to have THC levels of up to 12%, well above the 5-7% minimum mandated by Health Canada. "This has been accomplished and quality testing is complete," the official said.
But medical marijuana will not be getting to patients as soon as Health Canada implied. "As far as any distribution plan is concerned, it will have to ensure three things: privacy of the patients, security, and reliability," he told the Montreal Gazette. "Price is something that is yet to be determined. The marijuana will be affordable, but it will depend on the demand and the distribution mechanism."
Brent Zettl, president of Prairie Plant Systems, told the Toronto Globe and Mail that with many issues unresolved, he estimated that delivery could still be three to four months away. "Unless by some stroke of ingenuity they can expedite the process, my expectation is that it could be that long before we have it in the hands of exemptees," he said, "but this is the first time anyone in the world is doing this, and there has to be due process."
Part of the delay is due to Health Canada's eagerness to get feedback from patients, part to bureaucratic caution. Cindy Cripps-Prawak, director of the government's Office of Cannabis Medical Access, told the Globe and Mail that the agency would move carefully because it was dealing with a medicine more commonly known as an illegal street drug. "I think we're moving as quickly as is safe," she said. "We want to make a pharmaceutical-grade product available."
Health Canada will be contacting licensed medical marijuana patients in coming days to get their input on how the herb should be distributed, the Globe and Mail reported. And the agency has altered its original plan to have the product delivered in pre-rolled joints after receiving feedback from patients indicating they preferred to roll their own. The agency is also considering whether to make it available from neighborhood pharmacists or by special courier, as well as pondering the details of labeling for the drug's active ingredients.
While Health Canada may be faulted for moving too slowly to address such issues, the fact that Canada is discussing the details of how to implement a medical marijuana regime instead of whether to do so is in itself a sign of continued progress on our northern border.