"[The VICS] has provided that which the government was unable to provide:
a safe and high quality supply of marijuana to those needing it for medicinal purposes"
– B.C. Provincial Judge Higinbotham
Canadian Legal Medical marijuana users decry federally sanctioned product as weak and pricey.
The cannabis menu at the Vancouver Island Compassion Society changes daily. On this particular day, clients have a choice of Pochi, Hog, Shishberry, Imposter or Jack Herer. Beneath each name, a brief description of the effects of the variety is provided: strong and heady, reads one; mellow and body buzz, reads another.
In addition to supplying medical cannabis buds to about 600 clients on Vancouver Island, the compassion society offers an arrange of cannabis by-products and alternatives to smoking, such as cookies, oral sprays and tinctures, says society director Philippe Lucas.
It’s the society’s variety of products and family atmosphere that brings clients in to his underground operation – that, and the fact that federally-approved legal marijuana is substandard, Lucas says.
So it was with great surprise when he heard the federal government awarded a 15-month contract extension worth $2.1 million to Canada’s only legal grow-op, just two weeks after it gutted a $4-million fund for research into medical marijuana.
The government announced its decision to fund Prairie Plant Systems Inc. to grow cannabis inside an abandoned mine shaft mid-October.
"The frustration there is this is a company that really has not worked hard to meet the needs of the end users of this product," Lucas says in a recent interview.
While 1,400 Canadians are registered in the medical marijuana program, only 300 order marijuana through PPS.
According to Lucas, the government has spent more than $8 million on the PPS production facility.
"Now if we divide that over 300 people, we can see what we’re growing in Flin Flon, Manitoba is the world’s most expensive bud," he says.
But PPS president Brent Zettl says public outcry from medical marijuana advocates is a thin disguise for ulterior motives.
"It’s a cleverly disguised marketing campaign aimed to discredit what we do so they can be the only suppliers."
Zettl stands by the PPS product and says the number of users is steadily growing and demand for the product has jumped 80 per cent this year.
"Ninety-nine per cent of our patients are repeat customers and the only time they stop receiving our product is, unfortunately, when they’ve had a medical condition that’s gotten worse."
Jason Wilcox of James Bay is HIV positive and co-infected with hepatitis C. He recently purchased 300 grams of cannabis from PPS for $1,500 (plus $90 in PST and GST).
"I’m actually disappointed," Wilcox says. "It’s quite a large amount of money for stuff that has stem in it."
He depends on cannabis to help him take his anti-viral medications.
"When you’re sick and have a long-term illness that’s terminal, sometimes you have to take medications just to take you medications. You have to smoke cannabis in order to take your medications to keep them down."
Zettl says PPS has worked hard to produce a safe and consistent product for end users like Wilcox.
But is it strong enough?
Adrian Cameron of Esquimalt recently finished a one-year study conducted by McGill University Health Centre on the medical use of marijuana for pain management. To standardize the test, COMPASS study participants like Cameron were supplied with the PPS product.
Cameron, who suffers from pancreatitis, has been self-medicating with cannabis for four years, and has been a federally approved user for two years. Prior to participating in the study he used marijuana from a reliable source in Vancouver.
He found he had to smoke more PPS cannabis than usual to get the same medical benefits.
"I averaged one to two grams in use of the Vancouver product I was getting," Cameron says. "The PPS product, in order to keep stability with my condition, I was using the full 3 grams a day."
And it comes down to cost.
The PPS cannabis costs $150 for 30 grams, which is comparable to the street value of marijuana and cannabis available from compassion clubs.
If Cameron is going to shell out $400 from his meagre $650 disability cheque, he wants the biggest bang for his buck.
"The product from VICS is certainly stronger and that translates into having to use less of it," Cameron says.
The PPS product has 12.5 per cent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in pot. That percentage is level Health Canada has deemed acceptable based on national averages of THC in marijuana seized by police.
Zettl says that’s above the national average of nine to 10 per cent, and well above what you’ll find on B.C. streets.
"I hate to burst everyone’s bubble, but… the average grade in British Columbia is seven per cent," Zettl says.
But Ted Smith, founder of the Victoria-based Cannabis Buyers’ Club of Canada, says it’s not an accurate comparison.
"He’s comparing his average to the average THC content in stuff seized by police, not the average THC content in compassion clubs," Smith says.
But the problem here is his compassion club doesn’t do its own testing.
"It’s debatable right, how much THC is in the pot we sell because we don’t test it, but I think it’s probably 16-17 per cent THC. Well, that five per cent difference is quite substantial to people who are sick."
The big selling point for compassion clubs like Smith’s are the variety of strains of pot and related products they sell. Currently the Cannabis Buyers’ Club of Canada sells 22 different skin and food products and supplies medical marijuana to about 1,900 clients, mostly on Vancouver Island.
While Zettl would like to expand the number of varieties his Prairie Plant Systems produces, he’s only licensed by the federal government to produce the one strain. Nonetheless, the company points to a return rate of less than one per cent as proof of customer satisfaction.
Lucas attributes the dramatically reduced return rate to Health Canada’s change in policy, which makes it impossible for clients to obtain a refund once the package has been opened.
"Literally it’s the equivalent of sitting down for a meal, taking a bite of something rotten asking for another meal, and having the waiter say ‘sorry I can’t take this back because you’ve actually tasted it,’" Lucas says.
Health Canada first approved the medical use of cannabis in 2001 and in that same year the federal Liberal government under Jean Chretien awarded PPS a $5.7-million contract to grow marijuana for research purposes.
In 2003, an Ontario judge ruled that allowing the medicinal use of cannabis without providing access to a legal supply was a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Soon after, PPS started marketing its products to the public.
The PPS contract extension was particularly shocking to researchers in light of recent federal spending cuts to the medical marijuana research program.
According to information on the Department of Finance Canada website, the government cut research funding because it doesn’t need to "tell profession researchers what to study" and listed medical marijuana research as a non-core program.
But medical cannabis advocates argue the research program was developed with advice from an expert advisory committee on new active substances – an external body of scientific and medical experts.
"It’s a frustrating catch-22 because over and over we’re going to be told by the government, certainly by this Harper government, that we don’t know enough about medical marijuana to make it widely available or to make it available like any other medication," Lucas says.
About a million Canadians say they use marijuana for medicinal purposes.