The federal government is getting out of the medical marijuana business, a move that has sowed seeds of dissent with patients, physicians and pharmacists.
Federal health minister Leona Aglukkaq announced Sunday in Vancouver that Health Canada will no longer produce and distribute marijuana for medical purposes. Instead the work will be contracted out to private companies who meet strict security requirements.
There are currently 21,986 Canadians licensed to possess medical marijuana, up from 477 when the program began in 2002.
Many people are licensed to grow their own pot while others purchase it from Health Canada for between $1.80 and $5 per gram, well below the street price of about $15 a gram.
"Current medical marijuana regulations have left the system open to abuse," Ms. Aglukaaq said.
The move to tighten up the rules was praised by police, who feel medical marijuana licences are exploited by criminals, and fire officials, who deal with a lot of fires in grow-ups, legal and otherwise.
But the revamp of medical marijuana regulations has also angered medical professionals.
"The federal government established the program and is now abdicating its role as a regulator of medical marijuana," saidAnna Reid, president of the Canadian Medical Association, which represents Canada's 76,000 physicians.
She said doctors have real problems being asked to prescribe a drug that is not rigorously tested and that will grow worse under the new regulations.
"It's the equivalent of asking doctors to prescribe while blindfolded," Dr. Reid said.
Under the new regulations, licensed users will have to get a prescription for medical marijuana from either a physician or nurse-practitioner and then purchase the drug at a pharmacy.
The Canadian Pharmacists' Association has also spoken out against this approach, saying it will increase the potential for break-ins and robbers at pharmacies.
Ms. Aglukkaq defended the changes, however, saying they "strike the right balance between patient access and public safety." With the privatization of production, the price of medical marijuana will also rise, to $8.80 per gram, and that has left users unhappy.
Many people who use medical marijuana suffer from chronic pain and other disabling conditions, and tend to live on fixed incomes.
The Marihuana Medical Access Program has been beset by problems from day one. Initially, pot was grown in an abandoned mine and distributed by Health Canada, but users complained that it was of such poor quality that it was useless. Subsequently, users were allowed to grow the drug themselves, an approach that has been abused.
The current licences to possess and produce medical marijuana will expire gradually and the new regulations are slated to be fully implemented by March, 2014.