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This Bud Is Not For You - VIEW Magazine


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VIEW Magazine

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Vol. 13 No. 17 - April 26 - May 2, 2007

This Bud Is Not For You

By Willy Noiles

Critics say Health Canada is profiting off the sick and dying after it was revealed the government—run agency is charging patients 15 times more for medicinal marijuana than it pays to buy weed in bulk.

Records obtained by the Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act reveal that Health Canada has a 1,500 per cent mark—up on the marijuana it gets from its sole supplier.

"It makes me sick to know this is happening, that this is how Health Canada treats people," says Burlington activist and medicinal marijuana user Alison Myrden. "I'd like to see them justify this atrocity." Myrden uses marijuana to relieve the debilitating pain caused by Tic Douloureux, a "violent, electrical pain in the face" that four per cent of MS patients get. Without marijuana she said she'd be popping 32 pills of Morphine a day. "I don't want to do that anymore."

Myrden isn't the only one incensed over the exorbitant mark—up on medicinal marijuana. Records show that Health Canada pays $328.75 for each kilogram of bulk marijuana from its supplier, Prairie Plant Systems Inc. Health Canada then sells the marijuana to authorized users for $150 plus GST for each 30—gram bag of ground—up flowering tops, with a THC strength of up to 14 per cent. This works out to $5,000 for each kilogram, reflecting a mark—up of more than 1,500 per cent.

PPS currently has a $10.3 million contract with Health Canada to grow standardized medical marijuana in an abandoned mine shaft in Flin Flon, Manitoba. That contract expires at the end of September. Myrden says one thing she'd like to see Health Canada do is open the market up to give other growers a chance.

There are currently 1,742 people authorized by Health Canada to possess dried marijuana for medication.

Of those, 1,040 are authorized to grow their own, with another 167 people licensed to grow marijuana for the exclusive use of licensed patients. Patients can also order the marijuana directly from PPS, who typically mails the product by Purolator courier.

Myrden, who has a license, says she won't buy her marijuana from Health Canada because of the price and quality. PPS is "growing a number of different strains at once which is a problem." That's because various illnesses need particular strains of the bud to treat their conditions. Compassion clubs, which supply medical marijuana to their patients at just about cost, offer various strains. "I don't know why Health Canada can't do it," she says.

Street prices for marijuana average about $10 a gram, or about twice Health Canada's price, but bulk street purchases with few middlemen can match or better the government price.

Compassion clubs charge as little as $5 a gram, the same price as Health Canada's dope.

Tom MacMullen, of Prospect Bay, N.S., is one of the 514 patients who has ordered the government—certified dope. "It's garbage," he told reporters. "It's just so awful tasting."

MacMullen, a father of two, survives on a disability pension of $653 a month. With his low income, it's not surprising he's also one of the 149 patients currently in arrears with Health Canada.

He currently owes $517 with interest accruing monthly. Records show Health Canada is currently owed $143,611 in outstanding payments.

Ottawa medicinal marijuana user Shawn Jackson, a Kosovo peacekeeping veteran, has racked up a $5,600 debt with Health Canada. They cut off his supply just before Christmas and have sent his case to a collection agency. Jackson had received 150 grams a month from Health Canada at a cost of $795 beginning last July until he was cut off. But living on a $1,200 monthly disability pension and supporting his elderly mother left him choosing between food and paying for his marijuana. "How was I supposed to pay that bill? I can't afford it and now they are threatening me."

Jackson, who uses marijuana to ease the pain of terminal colon cancer, says he now intends to advocate for others who need medical marijuana but can't afford it. "I will fight for the... sick and dying until my last breath on this planet has been exhaled," he tells Ottawa reporters. "Why can't it just be free?"

Health Canada spokesman Jason Bouzanis defends the price, stating the quoted price of $328.75 a kilogram doesn't include other costs incurred by Health Canada. "The price for individuals authorized to possess marijuana for medical purposes is based on the actual cost of production and an estimate of costs associated with the distribution of the product. These costs are subject to change." Contract records show Health Canada pays the supplier a packaging fee of $9.06 for each 30—gram package to cover labour and materials, as well as courier fees.

But as Philippe Lucas, director of the Vancouver Island Compassion Society, points out there shouldn't be a huge mark—up because the taxpayer funds the refining and distribution process. "At a time when medical cannabis users all too often have to choose between buying groceries and their medicine, it is unconscionable that Health Canada... should be marking up this product 1,500 per cent."

To make matters worse, Bouzanis said Health Canada not only intends to phase out the production licenses sometime after 2007, it will also be tightening its rules around arrears beginning May 1. After that, those 30 days or more in arrears can receive one more shipment before they're cut off. Previously, patients were given a 180—day grace period.

Myrden wants to see Health Canada and the government own up to the problem. "Somebody has to step up and take responsibility for this. I would love to go face to face with Health Canada and Stephen Harper over this."
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