Canadian Cannabis: Talking Shop with Jonathan Zaid of CFAMM
We asked one of Canada’s most prominent cannabis activists to give us the details of the country’s move towards recreational legalization.
Author – Max Richardson-Davis
Edited by Noah Persin & Jon Russell
Canada will likely be the first industrialized country to introduce a fully regulated, recreational cannabis industry; possibly as early as Spring 2017. After Prime Minister Trudeau campaigned on the promise he would legalize and regulate cannabis for recreational purposes, he assigned a task force to research a method of implementation. Today, in our latest contribution to GreenSea’s Talking Shop series, we sit down with Jonathan Zaid of Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana. A renowned cannabis activist, Zaid and a group of patients met with the task force personally during the group’s period of research. Now, he sits down to discuss their findings, the future of Canada’s recreational cannabis industry and addressable issues within the existing medical industry.
Maxwell Davis, GreenSea Distribution: Jonathan Zaid, thank you for taking a moment to speak with me. For those who may not be familiar with you or your organization, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana (CFAMM) organization?
Jonathan Zaid, Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana: Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana (CFAMM) is a federal non-profit, patient-run organization dedicated to protecting and improving the rights of medical cannabis patients. CFAMM’s goal is to enable patients to obtain fair and safe access to medical cannabis.
I’m personally a medical cannabis patient and started CFAMM in 2014 after being one of the first patients to successfully advocate for medical cannabis insurance coverage. CFAMM has since grown tremendously and is now at the forefront of Canadian cannabis advocacy.
Maxwell: Thank you, Jonathan. Should they be interested, how may our audience contribute, join or help your cause?
Jonathan: To support our efforts to improve medical cannabis patients’ rights, check out CFAMM.ca to join, volunteer, or donate.
Maxwell: For our international audience reading, let’s start with Canada’s national medicinal cannabis program. It seems convoluted from an outside perspective, so let’s jump right in. From your perspective, is Canada’s current national medicinal cannabis program successful?
Jonathan: Although Canada’s medical cannabis program (the “ACMPR”) has its flaws, it is a successful program with almost 100,000 registered patients. Through multiple court cases starting, patients have driven Health Canada (Canada’s FDA equivalent) to create and later modify the medical cannabis regime.
To give you a brief idea of how the ACMPR works – patients get authorization from a physician and can then access medical cannabis from a licensed producer, produce it themselves, or designate another person to grow it for them. Health Canada licensed producers sell medical cannabis in dried or oil forms to authorized patients via mail/courier. This system allows for patients to securely access quality controlled, tested medical cannabis but limits education and personal interaction as retail sales are prohibited. Alternatively, patients can also register with Health Canada if they wish to produce their own cannabis or designate another person to produce for them.
Many patients still struggle with affordability under this system as there are limited insurance coverage options available and sales tax is levied.
Maxwell: As of now, do you believe Canadians have fair access to cannabis products? If not, what changes would you like to see take place in Canada’s medicinal cannabis industry and why?
Jonathan: Canadian medical cannabis patients still struggle with access and affordability issues. Many physicians still do not have enough education and feel uncomfortable authorizing cannabis. The ACMPR puts arbitrary limits on forms and potencies, so many patients still have to produce their own extractions or purchase the form they require from the “grey-market”. Many patients would also like to see store-front retail outlets, including dispensaries and pharmacies, allowed.
Maxwell: Now, moving towards recreational legalization, Prime Minister Trudeau recently implemented the Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation. On Dec. 13, 2016, the Task Force gave their 80 suggestions regarding the implementation of recreational cannabis to members of the government as well as publicly releasing them. The Government of Canada said they will create legislation in the Spring of 2017. What do you make of the Task Force’s findings?
Jonathan: Overall, I think the task force did a solid job on analyzing a very complex issue. While the task force was mainly reporting on non-medical cannabis legalization, they also made some recommendations on medical cannabis. There was fear among patients the recommendations would call for the elimination of the medical cannabis system, as the government could potentially merge it with the upcoming non-medical system. Luckily the task force recommended the ACMPR stay intact as-is for five years to protect patient access.
While this is great news, it also means the issues with the current system, such as taxation, insurance coverage and retail distribution still exist. The task force also called for medical cannabis research with the goal of it eventually going through the full drug approval process that pharmaceuticals must pass, a very positive step.
It is also important to consider these are recommendations to the federal government and many decisions, including distribution, will fall on the provinces/territories and municipalities.
Maxwell: I know many Canadians are incredibly angry with the government for continuing to enforce cannabis laws while the country moves towards legalization. It is still not clear why the Prime Minister did not decriminalize cannabis as a whole. As response, known cannabis activist Marc Emery said he would open up more dispensaries in Montreal before legalization is implemented. What do you think of the government’s stance on decriminalization? Do you think Emery’s stance is correct? Do you think his shops will be raided?
Jonathan: I can’t speak to specific businesses, but…
The government has been very clear their mission is to “legalize, regulate and restrict access to marijuana” – they aren’t trying to create a fully open market. Trudeau and his government appear to be committed to building this type of restricted market and have stated many times they won’t enact any decriminalization measures in the interim.
Prohibition and criminal sanctions do not solve anything, so the government must move quickly not just to legalize cannabis, but to also create a fair marketplace. We don’t want to keep seeing people get arrested for non-violent cannabis offenses. I think the task force recommendations fairly speak to the need to include former black-market businesses into the new, legalized market. It will be up to provinces to determine if and how currently unregulated dispensaries will be regulated in the legalized framework.
Maxwell: Do you foresee some of these large scale medicinal cannabis producers moving towards the recreational market when they get the chance?
Jonathan: Many of the current medical cannabis producers have publically expressed desire to serve the recreational market while others have been steadfast in remaining medical-only. It is likely the current market will significantly change and diversify with legalization. From CFAMM’s perspective, it is imperative that supply of patients’ medicine be prioritized as demand increases with recreational sales.
Maxwell: All in all, what are your thoughts on Canada’s recent move towards recreational cannabis legalization? Did you ever expect to see this in your lifetime?
Jonathan: Canada’s bold move towards legalization is game changing – we are the first large/industrialized country to legalize recreational cannabis at a federal level. In many ways, the world will be watching Canada to determine if, and how, their country should proceed with legalization.
Maxwell: I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s a big step forward not just for Canada, but for cannabis legalization advocates across the world. What is your biggest concern with the recreational cannabis industry moving forward?
Jonathan: The biggest concern with recreational cannabis is that patients and the medical use of cannabis will be neglected. There is no doubt that the recreational market dwarfs the medical market, so businesses will need incentives to continue supplying medical cannabis products and investing money in clinical research.
Maxwell: How do you foresee a recreational cannabis industry being implemented in Canada? In American states like Oregon, the state government used the existing medical cannabis market and expanded upon it. In other states like Alaska, it took over two years for the first customer to walk in the first recreational cannabis dispensary. Do you think the national cannabis program will build off the current medical industry or do you think the two will remain separate?
Jonathan: It fully remains to be seen how legalization will play out as the task force recommendations are nonbinding on the government and other levels of government must regulate various aspects as well.
The federal government has promised to introduce the initial legislation in Spring 2017 and from there it will need to go through the parliamentary process before being passed. Other areas of regulation, such as distribution, will need to be created at the provincial levels. Municipalities will need to regulate zoning for retail outlets and consumption sites. Some in the industry are saying 2018-2019 before recreational sales begin, but that’s just a guess at this point.
Maxwell: Now, if there is one thing you would like to say to cannabis activists, patients and entrepreneurs regarding the task force’s suggestions, what would it be?
Jonathan: Now is the optimal time for patients to push for positive change and to convert from activism to advocacy. It’s time to have mature, informed conversations about the benefits (and potential harms) of medical cannabis. Policy makers are finally listening.
The task force recommendations are simply recommendations, there is still time for things to change and there will likely be many changes even after legalization occurs. Patients should join forces and continue to advocate for better access and increased affordability.
Maxwell: That is some wise advice. Tell me a little bit about you have been up to recently. I’ve been seeing your name pop up in cannabis news articles around the U.S. and Canada!
Jonathan: I’m doing everything possible to ensure medical cannabis remains part of the legalization conversation. CFAMM has partnered with other national health charities to advocate as a united front. By taking a well-reasoned and moderate approach to advocacy, I’ve been able to work closely with policymakers at various levels to drive change.
In October, I was honored to help facilitate a patient round-table with the Task Force. This half-day session allowed a diverse group of patients and their caregivers to share their experiences and concerns with the task force. Patients conveyed concerns around affordability, access, research, supply, impaired driving and shared emotional stories of how cannabis has helped improve their quality of life. The task force expressed their gratefulness for this session in the report itself, so I think it made a lasting impression.
Maxwell: That’s incredibly interesting. Keep up the great work, Jonathan! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, you’ve been incredibly informative. I appreciate you agreeing to sit down and talk shop with me. Thanks again!