Good morning, and thank you for having me here today.
My name is Hilary Black, and I'm the founder of the first medical cannabis dispensary in the country, founded in 1997. In the interest of disclosure, I am also employed by a licensed producer, but I am here today representing the BC Compassion Club Society, and thank you for having me.
Cannabis legalization will affect some of the most vulnerable members of Canadian society, critically and chronically ill patients. We are offering you seven recommendations in our submission to assist you in prioritizing patient needs. My comments today are focused on three main areas: transitioning the BC Compassion Club Society into the legal market; facilitating affordability; and supporting research. This submission additionally addresses the need for a legal range of products and advertising education restrictions. My colleague, Marcel Vandebeek, will be making some comments about the need to eliminate barriers for small-scale growers.
We have been distributing medicinal cannabis openly and safely for over 20 years. We are a non-profit society with over 11,000 registered patients. We have a subsidized wellness centre. Last year alone we provided 3,400 holistic treatments like massage, counselling, clinical herbalism, and nutritional counselling for little or no cost to our membership. We are a front-line harm reduction organization. Our clients are often marginalized, have numerous diagnoses, mental health issues, and substance issues. They fall through the cracks of the health care system until we catch them.
We have developed a gold standard of education. We know how to maximize benefits, minimize risks, and avoid adverse effects. We offer each member a 60- to 90-minute intake and education session. This is not possible in a pharmacy. Our community supports us, our neighbours, businesses, local police, health care practitioners, and patient organizations. We are a community. We have Christmas parties, picnics, and neighbourhood cleanups.
The courts have repeatedly commended our work. In 2002, the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs toured our facility and recommended that our model be replicated across the country. I was nominated by Senator Pierre Claude Nolin—may he rest in peace—and received a Diamond Jubilee Medal recognizing our significant contribution to Canada. Our model is enshrined into Vancouver's city bylaws with incentives to encourage the replication of our services because our practitioners have up to a three-year wait-list.
Members of the task force visited us last September. You are all also invited to come and visit us. When they released their report, Anne McLellan said that what they learned there, putting aside certain issues of illegality, is that there can be a holistic, wellness-based, street-level approach that serves generally a highly marginalized population, and that this is a model that the report references and suggests the government should take a look at going forward.
Despite this extensive recognition from many levels of government, as cannabis is legalized, we are at risk of becoming more criminalized than we were for the past 20 years. We have a massive responsibility to ensure that the health care of our members is not interrupted, and we respectfully suggest that you share that responsibility with us.
We are a historical medical cannabis institution. We implore you to do everything in your power to protect the roots of this industry. Washington and Colorado prioritized transitioning long-standing medical cannabis dispensaries into the new framework, and we should be following suit.
For decades I have watched patients struggle, choosing between purchasing the medicine that allows them to function and other necessities, such as having groceries in their fridge. The problem is the status of cannabis. It's not an approved medicine. Access has been granted through the courts. It is again a category of one and not treated like other medications, although many patients access it through physician authorization.
This status is problematic for both tax and insurance. Both of these could be solved by creating a fast-tracked regulatory pathway for cannabis to be an approved drug or medicine. For good reason, we do not tax other prescription medications. The courts have stated in Hedges v. Canada that legislation imposing tax on medical cannabis resulted in confusion and uncertainty and needs work.
Another solution is to amend the Excise Tax Act to ensure medical cannabis is zero rated like other medical necessities and prescription medicines to relieve this unjust financial burden.
I'd like to introduce to you Mounia Lahbabi, who has worked at the House of Commons as a parliamentary assistant to MP Peter Julian for over 12 years. She has been prescribed cannabis for her medical conditions diagnosed while employed by the House of Commons, including Crohn's disease, osteoarthritis, and cervical degenerative disc disease. She exhausted standard medical treatments for these devastating conditions, which proved to be ineffective and have harmful side effects. Cannabis immediately eliminated the need for immunosuppressants, steroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, and other pain medications. It relieves her symptoms, which include nausea, insomnia, and debilitating, unrelenting neuropathic and chronic pain. Without cannabis, she can't eat, can't sleep, and she can't function.
The costs of her medication are unaffordable, but she cannot go without it. Her family has racked up thousands of dollars in debt in order to afford her prescribed medical cannabis. Even though medical cannabis lacks a drug identification number, Sun Life, responsible for the administration of claims under the public service health care plan, informed Mounia that they are set up and ready to cover the costs of this necessary therapy once it is in included in her plan.
Now I'd like to introduce you to Mandy McKnight. She's employed by the Canada Revenue Agency. Her son, Liam, is nine years old and diagnosed with Dravet syndrome, a catastrophic form of epilepsy for which there is currently no cure and the prognosis is unknown. Before trying cannabis, Liam had tried over 10 anti-epilepsy medications that failed to control his seizures. He was still suffering up to 80 seizures a day. The side effects from the benzodiazepines and barbiturates were severe, including brain atrophy. Since being prescribed cannabis when he was just five years old, Liam is doing remarkably well and his seizures are more controlled than on any other medication. The cost to the family is over $1,000 a month plus HST. The alternative therapies, which are less effective and come with terrible side effects, cost between $2,500 and $3,000 a month, but they are covered.
Both Mandy and Mounia have had health claims for coverage rejected by their employer.
Give medical cannabis a drug identification number, or something akin to it, perhaps a cannabis identification number, to facilitate fair taxation and insurance. Take care of patients and Canada's public servants. It's the right thing to do. You could lead this government, the country, and the world by including cannabis in the federal public service health care plan. Treat patients with the dignity, compassion, and support that they deserve.
We have an opportunity to be world leaders, expanding the evidence base of benefits and the safety profile of medical cannabis. We are facing an opiate and overdose crisis, and cannabis has tremendous potential as a harm reduction tool. We urge you to invest significant resources in human clinical research in cannabis and cannabinoids, and to prioritize researching into the potential of cannabis in managing pain and as a harm reduction tool for addiction and substance abuse. The Compassion Club has acquired tremendous experience with people who are struggling with problematic substance use. In using cannabis as a harm reduction tool, we have witnessed the potential of high-potency edibles and resins being substituted for recreational and medical opiates, methadone, alcohol, and cocaine. This country needs solutions to the opiate epidemic, and cannabis has incredible potential.
We implore this committee to do everything in its power to transition the community-based, long-standing, front-line harm reduction organization, the Compassion Club, and other long-standing medical cannabis dispensaries, which pioneered the medical cannabis movement and industry, into the new regulatory framework. Please consider the seven recommendations in this submission to improve the care of patients.
Thank you, and I'd like to introduce you to my colleague, Marcel Vandebeek, who will be making some brief comments.