The federal task force on marijuana released a thorough report this week that proposes to end Canada’s 93-year prohibition on legal pot production and consumption. Its 80 recommendations touched on the important considerations and concerns for a well-regulated system, and appeared to borrow from the experience of some U.S. states that are several years ahead of us.

But the federal task force failed on one important point: the merger of the medical and recreational marijuana markets.

Former Liberal minister Anne McLellan’s task force devoted an entire chapter to the issue of medical access. It noted that the Canadian Medical Association and the Federation of Medical Regulatory Authorities of Canada do not believe that doctors should write prescriptions for access to marijuana. Their arguments are sound.

  • There’s no conclusive research or evidence about how or if marijuana provides therapeutic benefits. Nor is there any conclusive data about the risks of using marijuana for medicinal purposes.
  • Physicians don’t want to be responsible for prescribing marijuana in the absence of reliable evidence. We want doctors to know what they are prescribing and why.
  • There are already other approved cannabinoid-based medicines on the market.
  • Allowing the medical marijuana market to continue as a separate system might delay or undermine funding for the necessary standard clinical drug development research.

Yet the task force recommended that legalization legislation “maintain a separate medical access framework,” at least at the outset and to re-evaluate it’s necessity in five years.

Similarly, the Canadian federal task force heard strongly from municipalities and law enforcement that medical marijuana licenses have been routinely abused.

The task force should have reviewed the multi-year experiences of states south of the border and come to a different recommendation.

Colorado, the first U.S. state to legalize use of marijuana, merged its medical and recreation markets from the beginning. It simply converted medical marijuana retail outlets into recreational stores.

In the state of Washington, lawmakers fell under the spell of lobbyists for the medical marijuana industry and kept the two markets separate when it initially legalized pot sales for recreational use in 2013. But the state closed all medical marijuana stores in July of this year, merging the two markets.

People in both states using marijuana to manage pain and other medical purposes have better access to legitimate and regulated products as a result of merging the two markets.

It’s well known that unregulated medical marijuana sales across North America were really a cover for recreational consumption. It was a way around prohibition that everyone, from law enforcement to politicians, was willing to accept on a nudge-nudge, wink-wink basis.

In the state of Washington, experts estimated that more than 90 percent of cannabis sold for ostensibly medical purposes was in fact consumed recreationally.

Similarly, the Canadian federal task force heard strongly from municipalities and law enforcement that medical marijuana licenses have been routinely abused.

The report says that “These stakeholders relayed numerous examples of instances where licenses issued under (medical marijuana), notably those to designated producers, were effectively used as a cover for illegal production and diversion to the illicit market.

“We heard about the size and scale of some of these designated producer operations and instances where law enforcement encountered thousands of plants in residential properties. Representatives from municipalities told us about the challenges these grow operations pose to neighbours, landlords and communities because of fires, break-ins and rental properties rendered uninhabitable due to mould or other contaminants.”

If there is sufficient legitimate demand for the low-hallucinogenic, high-analgesic cannabis preferred by medical users, retail stores will provide it. And medical users will have the option of growing their own.

The Wild West medical marijuana market has served its purpose as a bridge to legalization. Now it’s not only unnecessary, but poses professional risks for doctors and public safety risks for law enforcement. It’s time for a new sheriff in town.

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