Medical cannabis patients anxious and fearful over supply shortages

Can’t find any weed to buy for a party this weekend? Don’t complain.

Canadians who use cannabis for medical reasons are being hit by shortages in a far worse way.

“It’s actually more than a supply issue, really it’s something of a health crisis now,” says James O’Hara of the patient advocacy group Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana.

O’Hara says Canadians with cannabis prescriptions to help with seizures, anxiety and other serious health problems are emailing his organization, upset by “out of stock” signs at their regular provider’s website or retail location.

“Unfortunately, there are no regulations in place to actually guarantee supply for the medical market,” O’Hara points out.

‘I’m a patient’

Bryan Wakefield of Thunder Bay, Ont. has been unable to place an order for three weeks. He says he uses cannabis to manage his ADHD and borderline personality disorder.

“I’ve been on the phone today, trying to figure out which licensed producer I can switch to,” the 39-year-old says with frustration. “I’m a patient, it’s not like I’m ordering a microphone off Amazon and I’m upset because I got the wrong colour.”

Dan Goulet of Kitchener, Ont. works for a cannabis producer and even he can’t get his medicine. “My company doesn’t have the CBD oil that I use,” he says. In the two weeks he’s been unable to access cannabis supplies, he says he’s been experiencing “bad health effects” from a digestive disorder.

Meanwhile, 67-year-old Peter Prete of Thunder Bay is glad he was warned ahead of time to prepare for the shortage. A friend who works for a large cannabis producer that he declined to name, tipped him off that the focus would be shifting to the recreational market, and that he should stock up.

“I ordered a s–tload, if you’ll pardon the expression,” he says, noting that since he started using cannabis he’s been able to reduce his reliance on the prescription medications he regularly takes for an array of “old man” maladies. “I told my friends to do the same, to place big orders, but they didn’t listen and now they’re out of luck.”

Diverting supply

Many medicinal users suspect that licensed producers have been seduced by the much larger recreational market, and have prioritized shipments to that sector.

The director of the Cannabis Council of Canada, which represents 85 percent of the country’s cultivators and medicinal suppliers, says the opposite is true.

“If anything we’re seeing adult consumer-use cannabis being repackaged and reallocated to ensure medicinal demand is met first,” says Allan Rewak.

But he acknowledges there are issues right now. “Every time a patient is waiting, that’s a problem.”

Rewak says a combination of factors have led to difficulties with the medicinal supply.

Demand for medicinal cannabis “skyrocketed”  prior to the Oct. 17, possibly due to concerns from patients that recreational users would deplete inventory — and those orders depleted medical inventory

The industry is under stress during a time of transition, to try to increase staff and respond to overwhelming recreational demand.

“Medicinal patients are and will be our priority,” Rewak insists. “Every company that’s part of our membership is working seven days a week, 24 hours a day to make sure the supplies get out the door.”

Lack of transparency

Patient advocate James O’Hara isn’t satisfied by the industry’s reassurances.

“No one’s really communicating with patients and saying, ‘hey look, in 12 weeks or six weeks or three weeks you’re gonna be fine.’ That contributes to the anxiety that patients have, because they’re now in a realm where they just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In Thunder Bay, Bryan Wakefield agrees. “They’re not being very transparent,” he says. “No solutions are coming from the LPs, no one is saying ‘this is what we’re doing to improve this.'”

He’s also not impressed with the government’s treatment of medical patients. “Health Canada is very hands-off with this, and that’s very frustrating,” he says.

In an email to CBC, a spokesperson for Health Canada says: “The numbers tell the story: at the end of September 2018, licensed producers had reported to Health Canada … that they had inventory on hand of more than 90,000 kilograms of dried cannabis and 41,000 litres of cannabis oil. In contrast, preliminary estimates of retail sales to date from publicly available information, while strong, represent only a small fraction of that available inventory.”

If that’s the case, the trouble experienced by many medical patients remains a mystery.

“We never had any complaints about delivery before legalization,” says O’Hara. “What’s changed?  Only one thing.”

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