Patients decry looming cannabis tax

Originally published on The Georgia Straight

Canadian patients who rely on medical cannabis and the organizations that represent them are frustrated with the federal government’s proposed “sin” tax on their medicine.

In November 2017, the Liberal government revealed a proposed excise duty framework that would see recreational cannabis taxed at a rate of $1 per gram (or 10 percent of the producer’s sale price) when it is legalized in July.

While most Canadians expected the duty would apply to all fresh and dried cannabis, cannabis oils, seeds, and seedlings, many patients, physicians, and members of the industry were appalled to learn that it would also apply to the sale of medical cannabis.

Cam Battley, chief corporate officer at Canada’s second-largest licensed producer, Aurora Cannabis Inc., told the Georgia Straight by phone from Milton, Ontario, last week that the proposed framework came from a “profoundly wrongheaded” place.

“We were really hoping that…this would be the year they would remove the sales tax from medical cannabis, because it’s the only prescription medicine for which those taxes apply,” Battley said. “On so many levels, this excise tax is wrong.”

Consider the financial stress of people who are dealing with a chronic illness, he said. With many patients already living in income-constrained circumstances, the added tax could have a dramatic effect on individuals who prefer to use cannabis over other, nontaxable drugs, both at the financial level and in their quality of life.

Jonathan Zaid, founder and executive director of Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana (CFAMM), was among the first in Canada to advocate for the coverage of medical cannabis under private health-insurance plans back in 2014.

While Justin Trudeau told Toronto’s Breakfast Television in December that the excise tax would be a way of dissuading Canadians from accessing the medical cannabis system to obtain recreational pot, Zaid argued that such a claim was an insult to honest patients and their doctors.

“It’s quite frankly very offensive to patients, but even more so to the over 10,000 Canadian physicians who have authorized medical cannabis,” he told the Straight by phone from Waterloo, Ontario.

“If there is any abuse of the system that is occurring, we’re happy to address it, but it can’t mean we place a tax on the vast majority of patients that are using cannabis legitimately.”

Beyond the reasoning that Canada’s medical-cannabis system is plagued with “fakers”, some argue that medical cannabis should in fact be taxed because it hasn’t undergone the same rigorous clinical trials as standard pharmaceutical drugs. But with hundreds, if not thousands, of investigator-sponsored publications on cannabis, Battley said the notion that it’s understudied is misguided: “It’s easily one of the most studied substances in history,” he said.

“The [clinical trial] process costs on average a billion dollars, and takes 10 years. What you get in return is intellectual property, but cannabis is a plant, it can’t be patented, and so no one is going to invest that kind of money into clinical trials.”

As a regional coordinator at NORML Canada, one of the nation’s longest-running cannabis advocacy groups, and an attendant at Tweed Main Street’s Toronto store, Abi Sampson has seen firsthand how even slight price increases can affect patients.

“When Canopy [Tweed’s parent company] started charging for delivery, that $4 a month really hurt some of our patients,” she told the Straight by phone from Pickering, Ontario.

If the federal government were to follow through with the tax, Sampson said, it’s not unlikely that financially strained patients might resort to accessing their medicine through the black market, something many patients without a credit card or fixed address are currently forced to do.

“Putting up a financial barrier to access medication that is improving the lives of so many people is unjust, especially at a time when more and more people are coming out of the green closet, so to speak,” she said. “It’s not in the spirit of cannabis.”

Battley, Zaid, and Sampson are asking Canadian patients, advocates, physicians, and associations to rally behind their call for the elimination of tax on medical cannabis. Thanks to CFAMM’s “Don’t Tax Medicine” campaign, Zaid said, more than 16,000 Canadians have written letters to their MPs, while 11 nonprofit organizations and physician associations have shown support for CFAMM’s call for tax-free medical cannabis.

He, Battley, and more than 70 patients and patient advocates delivered that message to Finance Minister Bill Morneau on January 26, when they gathered in peaceful protest outside his constituency office in Toronto.

“ ‘Rethink this one, go back, be a hero, and change the policy,’ ” Battley said when asked what he might say to the minister should the opportunity arise. “ ‘We’ll cheer for you if you do. This is real medicine. Nobody is buying medical cannabis to get kids high.’ ”