When the tour bus finishes the climb up the lush mountainside and comes to a stop at Nine Mile, Jamaica, the local men are ready. There is already a lineup of tourists at a stone wall outside the Bob Marley memorial site, and from a hole in the wall the Jamaican men conduct their business, selling $15 cigar-sized marijuana joints and large portions of pot-infused cake. Inside the Bob Marley compound, where the tour will include the Rastafarian reggae superstar’s childhood home, the tourists will be able to enjoy their purchases legally, and soon many of them will be smoking on the verandah of an open-air bar.
In just another two months, Jamaica will announce decriminalization of small amounts of ganja for personal use, but on this day the Bob Marley site is the only place on the Caribbean island where smoking marijuana is legal.
It is April, and change is in the wind in Jamaica, in Canada and elsewhere around the globe.
As the end of the fiscal first quarter draws near, the state of Colorado is counting $11 million in tax revenue from marijuana sales in a retail experiment that began in January. Under a plan proposed by state Governor John Hickenlooper, the tax revenue is marked for youth prevention services, substance abuse treatment and public health. The governor estimated sales in all marijuana stores would approach $1 billion for the fiscal year. While revenue in state coffers grew, crime rates dropped.
Canadian Liberal leader Justin Trudeau had already advocated studying best practices from Colorado. For some, a Canadian legal marijuana program is a question of when, not if.
“Within five years,” predicted former B.C. solicitor general and former police chief Kash Heed, speaking to CBC Radio in May. Now working as a consultant to medical marijuana companies, he added: “And that is a positive thing, because we can now take taxation dollars and put it back into programs such as prevention, education and health care that is so sadly needed here in Canada.”
To get clear perspective on the global marijuana movement and the benefits and pitfalls in the choices facing policy makers, medical marijuana and its recreational use both factor in the equation. They are not the same, but there is just one industry: cannabis. Colorado and Washington’s legalization programs underscore the industry is lucrative, and suggest the astuteness of a government-regulated retail industry replacing an unregulated criminal marketplace.
In Canada, the marijuana debate is stoked by the federal election coming in October, 2015.
“The fact of the matter is our current approach on marijuana -- the prohibition that (prime minister) Stephen Harper continues to defend -- is failing in two primary ways,” Mr. Trudeau told the Canadian Press. “The first one is it is not protecting our kids from the negative impacts of marijuana on the developing brain. Secondly, we are funnelling millions upon millions of dollars each year into organized crime and criminal gangs. We do not need to be funding those organizations.”
A new medical marijuana industry was launched when Health Canada changed its regulations April 1, requiring patients with doctors’ notes to obtain their pot directly from licensed producers. Pundits said the Conservative government was trying to distance itself from marijuana, but what entrepreneurs saw was ground-floor opportunity. The department was flooded with hundreds of applications from would-be growers, who will have a lucrative market if Canada follows the U.S. lead on recreational sales. But there is already a substantial market unfolding; Ottawa projected the medical marijuana market will hit $1.3 billion annually by 2024, with some 450,000 registered users. By August, however, grow licences had been granted to just 13 companies.
The island of Jamaica, cited by the United States as its largest Caribbean supplier of illegal pot, saw possibilities in legitimate export as the global marijuana landscape shifted. In the same month that Canada’s revamped medical marijuana program got underway, the Jamaica Ganja Future Growers and Producers Association held its inaugural meeting. Some months earlier, in late 2013, Dr. Henry Lowe, a prominent and internationally-recognized Jamaican scientist, had already launched the island’s first medical marijuana firm.
There is a sense of urgency being cultivated along with the ganja crops. At the first Jamaica Cannabis Conference at the University of West Indies in May, the theme was, “Wake Up Jamaica, Our Opportunities Are Slipping Away.” The roster of international speakers, local media reported, included participants from Israel, China, the United States and Canada. In early June, the Jamaican government announced marijuana decriminalization.
On an island with wide disparity between the well-off and those living in poverty, tour guides gesture to the better homes on the hillsides, commenting that drug dealers live among the wealthiest. It’s easy to envision improvements to the economy, the crime rates and the lives of the farmers with Jamaica’s involvement in a legitimate marijuana industry.
The groundswell of global change is just beginning.
“It’s a young industry,” notes Fonda Betts, director of Greenleaf Medical Clinic and CEO of MedicalMarijuana.ca in British Columbia. Her clinic, founded in 2011, assesses patients for their eligibility into Health Canada’s medical marijuana program, and provides consultations with a cannabis-knowledgeable physician where appropriate. Clients are required to provide proper documentation of their medical condition. “It’s a great industry; it’s wonderful when we can give patients relief. It’s doing great things out there ... I’ve seen patients where we’ve given them their life back.”
Her business plan includes future cannabis clinical trials with the University of British Columbia and applying to Health Canada to be a licensed marijuana producer. But even now, 3,500 adult patients are referred to her clinic annually, including the elderly. Toronto-based MedCannAccess opened a similar clinic, the MedCannAccess Solution Centre, in Hamilton in late August.
The market, in its infancy since Health Canada changed its regulations, has even more potential since the British Columbia Appeal Court ruled in August it’s unconstitutional for Health Canada to outlaw patient use of marijuana-based products such as cookies, cakes, oils, creams and candy bars. Parliament was given one year to craft regulations to allow medicinal marijuana patients to use products made from cannabis extract.
A U.S. pizza chain, meanwhile, announced it was working on marijuana-infused sauces, for distribution in states with recreational and medical marijuana programs.
Investors could get hungry. Ontario-based marijuana company Tweed was the first Canadian company out of the gate on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and other companies were poised to follow. South of the border, Wall Street commodities expert Steve Janjic launched Amercanex, an electronic marketplace exchange for the cannabis industry, where company inventories can be bought, sold and traded on a Wall Street model.
“We will soon hit the tipping point at which state after state will legalize cannabis like falling dominos,” he said in a press release.
If potential tax revenue and economic growth aren’t enough to get Canadian politicians’ attention, they will find it increasingly difficult to defend the status quo. The majority of Canadians, according to the Harper government’s own opinion poll, favour either legalization or decriminalization. The publication of the poll results in late July and the timing of Justice Minister Peter MacKay’s comments on softening marijuana laws were duly noted.
But there’s more at stake than votes, money and harsh penalties against marijuana smokers. The country needs to actively facilitate more medical research, exploring evidence that cannabis provides relief to people suffering chronic pain, seizures, cancer and other conditions.
“From a physician’s standpoint, it’s very difficult,” says Ms. Betts, noting the lack of a drug identification number for cannabis means doctors can’t write out a traditional prescription, and have no clear guidelines on patient dosages, medicinal uses or risks.
To get a DIN on a drug, Health Canada requires that clinical trials be carried out by physician-led research teams. The department must approve the trial first, and then agree with any conclusions that benefits outweigh risks, before a drug gets a DIN. Without the eight-digit number, a drug product can’t be sold in Canada.
On its website, Health Canada notes that the sponsors of clinical trials, those who want to test a drug in the first place, are most often drug companies, hospitals, universities and researchers.
At the Canadian Medical Association annual general meeting in Ottawa in August, incoming president Dr. Chris Simpson told reporters the CMA has a long-standing policy supporting the decriminalization of pot “because we don’t see the value of turning people who smoke marijuana into criminals.” On medical marijuana, he added: “We are very sympathetic to the number of Canadians who tell us that they derive relief from marijuana. So we stand in solidarity with the patients. But our position is very clear: The evidence is insufficient to support its use as medicine.”
The CMA called for “comprehensive regulatory standards” to guide doctors in prescribing marijuana.
Research is being done industry wide, says Ms. Betts, that will ultimately aid doctors when cannabis is granted a DIN. “There’s definitely research going on behind the scenes ... there’s a lot going on in the world.”
Saskatchewan-based Prairie Plant Systems, until recently Health Canada’s sole supplier of medical marijuana, has registered the first clinical trial with the government under its revamped legislation. The trial will measure the effects of vapourized cannabis on patients with osteoarthritis of the knee against other patients who receive a placebo.
The study will “provide prescribing physicians with the clinical data they are looking for regarding dosing,” said Brent Zettl, president and CEO of the company, in a Huffington Post article. Prairie Plant Systems is the parent company of CanniMed Ltd., one of the first 13 companies licensed by Health Canada under the new medical marijuana rules.
There will be a lot for medical researchers to collectively bring forth. Smoking marijuana, for example, isn’t the only option. Cannabis can be administered in oils, pills and vapourizers, and marijuana can be grown so that its medicinal cannabidiol is increased, while the high-producing THC content is lowered or eliminated. The growing technique means a strain called “Charlotte’s Web” can be given to children, in treatment for epilepsy. Cannabis oil for children is not available in Canada due to lack of clinical trials. But some American families have packed up and moved to Colorado in an attempt to find help for their children.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, an American neurosurgeon and chief medical correspondent for CNN, explored the potential of cannabis treatments and the “politics of pot” in his documentary ‘Weed 2’, broadcast in March. The doctor, who in 2009 penned a Time magazine article, ‘Why I would vote no on pot’, later changed his views and apologized to readers, saying he’d uncovered “stunning” evidence by digging deeper into “remarkable research” being done in smaller labs in other countries.
“I have sat in labs and personally analyzed the molecules in marijuana that have such potential but are also a source of intense controversy,” he writes on the CNN website. “I have seen those molecules turned into medicine that has quelled epilepsy in a child and pain in a grown adult. I’ve seen it help a woman at the peak of her life to overcome the ravages of multiple sclerosis.
“I am more convinced than ever that it is irresponsible to not provide the best care we can, care that often may involve marijuana.”
A pharmaceutical DIN for cannabis would also mean coverage under medical plans, easing the costs for patients.
Durham Region licensed medical marijuana user Al, who didn’t want his last name used because of the “stigma” he feels from the community, says traditional medication didn’t help with the epileptic seizures he suffered since childhood. Smoking marijuana means he has no seizures at all, he says, but the cost of $7.50 per gram plus tax and shipping means he’s paying $600 a month for what he considers medicine.
“(Justice Minister) Peter MacKay says he’s going to ticket people,” he says. “Well I’m getting ticketed every day. I’m not interested in getting blitzed. I want to be able to do my job. I want to be able to sleep.”
Some patients who can’t afford cannabis are forced to turn back to addictive opioid-based medications, Ms. Betts says.
Currently, Health Canada wants to prohibit patients from growing their own weed, but a federal court injunction was granted until further constitutional arguments can be heard. The government pointed out, not unwisely, that home grow-ops lead to burglaries and crime.
Moreover, licensed growers can ensure quality control. As savvy entrepreneurs and investors have no doubt deduced, they’ll be in a position to respond swiftly to market demand when or if Canada introduces a recreational marijuana program.
But the most logical reason for Canada to adopt legal marijuana sales is to take the market away from organized crime, making the drug less accessible to children on streets and playgrounds. In Uruguay, the government this year moved to selling marijuana for $1 a gram, to put the criminals out of business.
Macleans magazine reported in 2013 that Canadian children and youth are the heaviest users of cannabis in the developed world, citing a report from UNICEF. The magazine noted that Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands, where pot use has been decriminalized, legalized or liberalized, all have rates of child cannabis use that range from one-third to more than one-half lower than in Canada.
Children are vulnerable because their brains are not fully developed. The American National Institute on Drug Abuse cites studies that show people who began smoking marijuana heavily in their teens lost an average of eight points in IQ between age 13 and age 38. Those who started smoking marijuana in adulthood did not show significant IQ declines.
Macleans put the health and social costs of cannabis, tobacco and alcohol in perspective for readers. It cited Health Canada data charted by Gerald Thomas, an analyst with the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C., and Chris Davis, an analyst with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. They found tobacco-related health costs are more than $800 per user; alcohol-related health costs were $165 per user; and cannabis-related health costs were $20 per user. Enforcement costs added $153 per drinker and $328 for a cannabis user. “In other words, 94 per cent of the cost to society of cannabis comes from keeping it illegal,” Vancouver bureau chief Ken MacQueen wrote.
Ms. Betts says she’s “all about the medical side” of marijuana and hesitates when asked if she believes Canada should allow its legal recreational sale. “In my heart of hearts, yes,” she says, after a pause. “It’s better than alcohol, 100 per cent.”