The federal government is poised to eliminate licensed medical marijuana grow ops in homes that have long been criticized for safety concerns and connections to the illegal drug trade.
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced in Maple Ridge on Sunday a planned shift to a new system of federally regulated commercial producers of medical pot who will supply authorized users with prescriptions from doctors.
“Under our new rule, only facilities that meet strict security requirements will be able to produce marijuana for medical purposes,” Aglukkaq said.
The new system – which also ends government production of medical pot – is expected to come at a sharply higher cost for the nearly 26,000 users authorized to possess medical marijuana.
The price of medical marijuana from Health Canada should rise to $8.80 cents a gram – it currently ranges from $1.80 to $5 a gram.
Local authorities have argued most medical pot home growers are producing far more plants than they require, suggesting rampant abuse of the program by licensees selling into the illicit market.
“The high value of marijuana on the illicit market increases the risk of home invasions,” Aglukkaq noted. “These production operations can also present fire and toxic mould hazards.”
The federal Ministry of Health said it intends to implement the system by March 31, 2014, at which point all current licences to possess or produce pot are to expire.
The Fire Chiefs Association of B.C. believes the change will improve safety in residential neighbourhoods.
The new rules were welcomed by Maple Ridge fire chief Peter Grootendorst, who has lobbied long for changes.
“If it truly is a drug and is being prescribed by doctors, then it should be like every other drug, with quality control and security,” he said.
However, Grootendorst and other fire chiefs remain concerned that Health Canada is refusing to disclose the locations of existing medical grow ops once they are dismantled.
“What we want is the location of those grow ops to be disclosed to police so we can check to make sure they have been dismantled and everything was done safely,” he said.
The government is also moving towards licensing cannabis compassion clubs, which have existed in a legal grey area since Health Canada approved medical pot.
Maple Ridge’s TAGGS Dispensary has attracted more than 1,000 members since it opened in 2009.
Founder Michael Joinson will be one of the first to apply to be licensed as a compassion club and is optimistic about the new changes, but still has concerns.
“There are a lot of problems,” said Joinson. “You are now taking away the ability of these people who’ve invested time and money in growing their own medicine. The other thing I don’t like is how they lump in legal medical grows with illegal grows.”
Joinson said a lot of people don’t like buying marijuana from Health Canada because they only produce one strain of cannabis.
He is also worried about who commercial growers will be and what expertise they will have.
Joinson and other advocates who want a patient-friendly system believe that Health Canada did not take their advice when they provide feedback on the new rules.
“I sent a document that was 45 pages, explaining the best way to go about things,” said Joinson. “I don’t think they even looked at it.”
The government is holding a 75-day comment period for the public to give feedback on the proposal (http://bit.ly/U4xtqi), which will end on Feb. 28, 2013.
– with files from Black Press