A former councillor for the District of Maple Ridge is throwing his support behind a local medical cannabis dispensary by voicing concern about changes proposed by Health Canada.
“The fear is that given the federal government’s prejudice against anything that might hint of legalization, they will make it more difficult and a lot more expensive for sick people to access the medicine that works for them,” said Craig Speirs.
“It isn’t in anyone’s best interest to make criminals of sick people or those who are growing and dispensing their medicine.”
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.
By March 31, 2014, all current licences to possess or produce marijuana will expire and a new system of federally regulated commercial producers who supply authorized users with prescriptions from doctors will take its place.
Speirs has kept an eye on TAGGS Dispensary since it first opened downtown Maple Ridge in 2009.
“I haven’t heard one complaint about it,” he said.
Three years later, the dispensary has attracted 1,090 members, but operates in a legal grey area since cannabis compassion clubs are not licensed by Health Canada.
Under the proposed changes, such clubs are expected to be licensed. However, details about whether they will be allowed to dispense marijuana are scant.
As a steady stream of patients walked in and out of the dispensary on Thursday, Speirs hoped Health Canada won’t meddle with a model that he believes is clearly working.
The patients at TAGGS ranged in age from their early 20s to late 60s and were purchasing a variety of strains of marijuana, both in edible and plant forms.
“The dispensary model has eased the suffering of many desperately ill people,” said Speirs, who ran federally for the New Democrats during the last election.
“It’s a model that is working and it would be a mistake to dismantle the present system and ignore the collective knowledge the dispensary system has gathered. It needs to be embraced by local government and the federal government. It needs to be normalized.”
He also believes that phasing out personal production licenses will only push growers underground.
“Medical grow ops will continue to be popular because of simple economics and the patients need to have control of the quality and providence of their medicine,” said Speirs, noting the growing, processing and dispensing of medical marijuana will create more jobs.
“The underground cannabis industry in B.C. presently employs over 200,000 people – none of whom pay taxes.”
For TAGGS, the uncertainty surrounding the proposed changes is stressful – not just for those who run the dispensary, but also patients.
“I’m afraid for our members,” said Kim Baird, who manages TAGGS. “They rely on us.”
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.
TAGGS founder Michael Joinson knows the current rules are not working, but has many concerns about the new ones being proposed.
“We have people who’ve invested money in growing their own medicine and now they want to take that away from them,” he said.
Joinson points to a dispensary customer who acquired a production license last year and has spent $33,000 to create a safe growing room. The room was inspected by the municipality, which made sure wiring and construction were up to code.
“Under the new rules, he’s going to lose everything,” said Joinson. “That’s just crazy.”
Ideally, Joinson wants non-profit compassion clubs to be endorsed by Health Canada and finally move out of legal limbo.
Joinson and Speirs intend to express their concerns to local Conservative member of parliament Randy Kamp during a meeting set to take place next week.
Both are encouraging others to comment on the proposed changes before the deadline of Feb. 28.
“We can’t continue to do to fight for medical marijuana through the courts,” said Speirs.
“It’s time to stop hurting people and start healing them.”