No Need To Reinvent The Wheel On Cannabis

In this National Post article, Tilray's Greg Engel discusses how the new Trudeau government should approach cannabis.

After decades of prohibition, Canadians are finally discussing whether cannabis should be sold legally to responsible adults, and if the benefits of taxing, regulating and restricting marijuana would make for better policy than the status quo.

Canadians have made it clear that they support giving people access to medical marijuana and removing the criminal penalties for adults who choose to consume the substance in a responsible manner. According to a recent Leger poll, not only do 86 per cent of Canadians support regulated access to medical cannabis with physician support, 76 per cent believe that health insurance companies should cover the cost. Similarly, another poll found that two-thirds of Canadians favour changing our laws so that people are not given criminal records for minor, non-violent offences.

Increasing public support for both access and research into the therapeutic benefits of medical cannabis, along with the election of prime minister designate Justin Trudeau, who has promised to legalize marijuana, sets the stage for a rethink of our country’s approach to cannabis. The new government should take this on as one of its top priorities.

The good news for Trudeau and his government is that we are not starting from scratch. Canada has one of the most advanced medical cannabis industries in the world, as well as some of the strictest medical cannabis regulations in existence.

For decades, cannabis and community advocates have challenged the status quo and won legal access to medical marijuana by arguing that science, safety, compassion and even commercial success need not be mutually exclusive. In April 2014, Health Canada’s Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) established a highly regulated, competitive medical cannabis industry. Today, 26 federally licenced producers (LPs), produce and sell medical cannabis under the most rigorous safety and quality standards in the world.

The government’s first priority should be safety. No system of growing and selling cannabis can work without explicit, strict and enforceable rules regulating product quality, safety and security. This means implementing food or pharmaceutical-grade production standards and extending the stringent quality and consistency standards set out in the MMPR to any new sources of marijuana. It means controlling where and how cannabis is grown and sold, to keep it out of the hands of children and to ensure that the profits do not go to criminal elements. And it means creating a public-private partnership to fund clinical research into the use of cannabis in medicinal applications.

It also means ensuring and improving access for people who rely on medical cannabis, as access to medication is as critical as the discovery of novel therapies. There is no question that not being able to afford medical cannabis prevents or limits patients’ ability to manage their health conditions. If the Trudeau government’s position on marijuana is more than political, it will offer financial relief to patients that is analogous to that offered for other medications and encourage private payers and the provincial drug plans to follow suit.

Beyond financial access, Trudeau’s government will need to address the current product distribution system. Today, medical cannabis is successfully and securely shipped via courier. This direct mail option may well continue to be viable under a new set of regulations. However, being able to legally obtain cannabis at a local outlet also makes a great deal of sense, both as a matter of convenience and as a way to interact with knowledgeable customer-service representatives for what is sometimes a new and confusing product for many people. Canadian law stipulates that licensed producers are the only legal source of medical cannabis, despite the fact that numerous cannabis clubs have been operating in an unregulated manner for many years, while law enforcement has looked the other way.

Storefront cannabis dispensaries could be incorporated into Canada’s current system of regulations. There are examples in other parts of the world where dispensaries have been incorporated into new cannabis industries, ensuring that patients and other consumers benefit from the product knowledge that exists in these community-based organizations, and the expertise that LPs — like my company, Tilray — have developed regarding safe production and distribution.

I am optimistic about the new government’s approach to cannabis. New political leadership means opportunities to export not only our expertise but also a supply of rigorously produced and tested medical cannabis to global medical markets, which are dependent on imports from countries such as Canada. There is enormous potential for Canada to correct the harms caused by cannabis prohibition, generate meaningful tax revenue, protect children and establish this country as a global leader in this rapidly emerging industry.