While we still have to wait and see the more minute details of the regulations on August 24th, Health Canada’s announcement last week about the allowance for personal and designated grower production for medical cannabis patients made waves in Canada and around the world.
While the agency emphasized that this was largely a stop-gap response to the Allard ruling, and future regulatory changes would be coming (including likely pharmacy distribution), this is still being seen as a huge step forward by many advocates and activists who have fought to secure the right to home grows. The details of how that reaffirmed right, and the associated rules, will be managed still remains to be seen.
One such detail that has stood out to many is that patients or designated growers who seek to grow cannabis for medical purposes are required to get their genetic starting materials (clones, seeds) from established Licensed Producers. While on paper, this could seem a common sense approach to a legal source, some of the realities of how this can be managed or enforced seem not all that clear cut.
For one, there’s the issue of how this can even be practically enforced. As in the past with the MMAR, Health Canada’s rule was to tell patients and their designated growers they had to buy seeds from the government or the sole government contractor for medical cannabis at the time, Prairie Plant Systems. This was a rule often ignored by home grows who found easier access and far more variety from a plethora of black market sources operating very openly.
Since home inspections of MMAR grows were practically non existent, this rule became nothing more than a formal way for the government to pretend they were providing a legal source.
Adding to the irony, Licensed Producers were also allowed to secure genetics from MMAR growers previous to April 2014, and many current LP strains are ones actually developed by MMAR growers, as well as illicit and licit growers around the world.
But another side of this is the current LP’s ability to provide clones or seeds to patients in any significant number any time soon. Like anything under the MMPR, Licensed Producers operate in a sea of red tape, with even root balls having to be carefully documented. So the idea of the majority of LP’s being able to rapidly provide even clones, much less seeds, in the coming weeks or even months, seems unlikely. Add to that, a general feeling that Health Canada did not openly consult with LP's about their ability to provide these genetic starting materials.
Once they are able to produce clones and (eventually) seeds, variety will remain an issue for some. Producers have already invested time and effort into developing specific strains, and like many growers, they are protective of their genetics. While producers will want to satisfy their patient’s demands for starting material, they also may not want to release all of their genetics, especially ones considered proprietary.
Some producers like Bedrocan, who carry a handful of strains the company has been perfecting for well over a decade, may not want to sell seeds or clones at all.
On top of the paperwork, the logistics of planning out the large scale of production of clones or seeds requires serious forethought. For example, you need to be prepared to grow out your mother plants more for cuttings for clones and if you’re growing seeds on a large scale, your production methods will in most cases require new rooms and infrastructure. While this might seem relatively easy in a less regulated market, for a company operating under the byzantine MMPR/ACMPR, it requires immense forethought. Not to mention the likely addition of new rules and inspections.
Vic Neufeld, CEO of Aphria Inc, a greenhouse cannabis producer in Leamington, Ont., says that Aphria looks forward to being able to supply strains, but is still waiting on approval of the extra growing space needed to do so. Even then, he points out, of the approximately 16 strains the company currently grows, Aphria would likely release about 10 or 12 of them, with the rest being proprietary.
“Once our part 2 expansion is done and we’ve allocated more space for mothers, it’s fairly easy for us to take three or four or five strains or more that are not unique to Aphria and something that we haven’t spent 18 months producing, just general strains,” says Neufeuld.
“We are ready to go. We’ve already tested the packaging, we’ve already tested the shipping, we’ve already replanted them. We are ready to go today. It’s great. They’re giving the plant back to the people.” -John Miller, President and CEO of THC Biomed
Aphria’s Part 2 expansion will include the addition of nearly 50,000 sq ft of approved growing space. Neufeld can see offering patients a mix of high THC, high CBD, and options in between. This would likely only be clones, though, not seeds.
“Right out of the box, I can say we are not going to participate in the shipment of seeds. That’s not a part of our core competency. We have seeds for our own growth, but seeds is not a part of what we would like to see happen. If we’re forced to, and there’s a commercial trending, obviously we’ll participate, but our preference...would be sending two to three week old cuttings. We will absolutely be a part of that, because home grown for medical purposes is something that we support.”
Neufeld also wonders if Health Canada could, at some point, alter the regulations to open up seed options for patients.
“I have to believe that as this space grows up, and the running rules get more and more manicured, I have to believe that Health Canada will find designated seed outlets — retailers that are sanctioned and regulated by Health Canada, where Mrs. Smith can go and acquire her eight or ten seeds. But in the meantime, no, we have seeds in the vault, but they’re for our own use.”
“I have to believe that as this space grows up, and the running rules get more and more manicured, I have to believe that Health Canada will find designated seed outlets — retailers that are sanctioned and regulated by Health Canada, where Mrs. Smith can go and acquire her eight or ten seeds. But in the meantime, no, we have seeds in the vault, but they’re for our own use.” -Vic Neufeld, CEO of Aphria Inc
Mark Zekulin, the President of Tweed Inc, says Tweed could possibly be supplying both seeds and clones in the future, but also emphasized the need for more formal planning to be able to meet a commercial demand.
“To be honest, I don’t think seeds are out of the question,” says Zekulin. “We’ve talked a lot over the years about the importance of breeding to us, and we’ve partnered with some of the best breeders in the world, so this topic — not in this context — but this topic has been on our minds for a while. So it’s not out of the question that we would look at seed production in the near future.
“The bigger issue is what genetics would we be willing to put out into the market. Take Bedrocan as an extreme case, they’ve spent decades standardizing their strains, it’s unlikely you would put those genetics out into the market. It’s the same thing with Tweed. We’ve gone to a lot of trouble, put in a lot of energy, to comb through hundreds of different phenotypes to narrow down to the one that we think is the best one. So we value that. But if you put that aside, sure, we can look at what we have available.”
Still, this won’t happen overnight, says Zekulin. Nothing moves fast in the MMPR, and the question of demand still needs to be answered. Will patients even buy from LP’s at all when it’s so easy to buy seeds online?
“It probably is still months, not days [before Tweed could sell clones]," continues Zekulin. "For example, when we release dried product, there’s a lot of QA we have to go through, having not seen the regulations there might be no QA we have to go through with clones, or there might be a whole process. We don’t know quite what that will look like.
“But it’s also just not on our schedule. We have a pretty detailed planning schedule that we’ve planned out for growing enough clones to fill our facility, and this is something new, so we have to look at how it impacts our schedule. And let’s be honest, we have to look at if it’s even worth doing. Is anybody going to buy clones from producers, or are they just going to buy genetics from the local seed shop?”
“It probably is still months, not days [before Tweed could sell clones]. For example, when we release dried product, there’s a lot of QA we have to go through, having not seen the regulations there might be no QA we have to go through with clones, or there might be a whole process. We don’t know quite what that will look like." - Mark Zekulin, President, Tweed Inc.
At least one producer, however, says they are ready to go as soon as they get their sales license. THC Biomed, a Licensed Producer in Kelowna BC that is still awaiting their sale licence for both dried flowers as well as oil, has built their business model around the ability to supply patients with not only oils and dried flowers, but also clones.
John Miller, President and CEO of THC Biomed, and a former licensed grower under the MMAR, feels confident his company can supply patients the day they are licensed to do so.
“We’re ready to supply patients, and patients need to be supplied,” says Miller. “THC Biomed is one of the only companies who has always sought to supply genetics. Other producers talk about proprietary strains and want to keep genetics to themselves, whereas we went in the opposite different direction and have a whole section dedicated to that.”
While THC Biomed still wants to provide their patients with finished cannabis products, he says he’s excited to help new growers through the process of their first home grow.
“It is very easy to grow under the right conditions, and with the right strains and guidance, as long as you can grow marijuana very easily, and there’s no reason to have to buy it from a Licensed Producer or from the black market.
“We are ready to go. We’ve already tested the packaging, we’ve already tested the shipping, we’ve already replanted them. We are ready to go today. It’s great. They’re giving the plant back to the people.”
Again, we’ll have to wait until August 24th to see where the home grows devil dwells in the details, but as stated thus far, the rules on genetics seem unenforceable at best. While obviously many patients will find it very convenient to buy clones from their LP, there is still a massive 'grey' seed market out there, and even clones can be easily procured from a friend of a friend, and have been known to be sold at times in dispensaries.
At best, patients can buy from an LP once and then use other material from somewhere else, as many do right now with dried flowers and the MMPR. If there’s no mechanism in place to allow for any kind of regulatory oversight, then even this becomes an unnecessary step and people can source from wherever they want with little to no consequence.
Many will still likely opt to buy from their LP, but until they can supply at the scale of the unregulated market, ‘legal’ home grows will be in theory only much like the current response to the Smith ruling in 2015 that guaranteed patients’ rights to use cannabis in all its forms. Yet a year later, only a dozen companies are licensed to sell oils (and no other forms of derivatives), and in a limited potency.
This delay in implantation is certainly due, at least in part, to the a limited budget and staff at Health Canada and the Office of Medical Cannabis. Adding yet another layer of approvals and red tape for LP genetic starting material sales will certainly add to the agency's, and industry's, burdens.
It will be interesting to see how this interim measure pans out, and what comes to follow.