The recently introduced Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) are set to replace Health Canada’s Medical Marijuana Access Regulations (MMAR) on April 1, after which the production and sale of medicinal marijuana will occur in what is peddled as a ‘free market system.’

These regulations, however, do not constitute a market-oriented alternative to Health Canada’s former system.

Health Canada, for instance, stopped accepting applications for personal-use production licenses (PUPL) and designated-person production licenses (DPPL) on Oct. 1, instead compelling patients to obtain medicinal marijuana directly from government-licensed producers. Current PUPL- and DPPL-holders will be constrained when their licenses expire on March 31.

As a result, Health Canada’s new MMPRs prohibit patients from cultivating their own product or obtaining it from a designated producer.

Under the former system, patients were free to acquire medicinal marijuana directly from Health Canada’s Medical Marijuana Access Program (MMAP), from DPPL-holders or obtain a PUPL, allowing individuals to cultivate marijuana for personal use in their own home. The latter option afforded patients the ability to produce and consume marijuana for between $1 and $4 a gram, $5 to $7 cheaper than Prairie Plant Systems’ projected price (not including shipping costs and taxes).

Considering the financial position of many medicinal marijuana patients — 70 per cent of whom receive fixed disability pensions — the unexpected price increase is damaging. Several patients, for instance, require in excess of 10 grams daily ($10 to $40 at current prices; $100+ at projected prices), representing a monthly increase of $1,680 to $2,520.

Health Canada’s new regulations, in effect, leave patients with three options: reduce consumption, increase expenditure, or pursue illegal alternatives.

Because the federal government permits marijuana consumption in a medical setting, reducing consumption is not a viable alternative. Patients consume medicinal marijuana as a means of alleviating pain and, therefore, consuming less potentially corresponds with suffering more.

Increasing expenditure is similarly unmanageable for most patients. 61 per cent of patients, for instance, receive an average annual income below $30,000 and 72 per cent of applicants, according to Health Canada, suffer from debilitating conditions that hinder their ability to obtain accommodating employment. As a result, the subsequent price increase is untenable, especially for individuals who have already invested a significant amount of their income to cultivate the plant in their own home and are now prohibited from doing just that.

In theory, it is conceivable that a former PUPL-holder can apply for a new MMPR producer-license, provided that individual is prepared to abide by a swath of new rules and restrictions. Given that painful ailments typically reduce personal mobility, however, Health Canada’s limitations on in-home cultivation make this an unlikely scenario.

The last option — pursuing illegal alternatives — is, arguably, the most viable response to Health Canada’s new regulations.

Although marijuana’s street-value roughly averages Health Canada’s $11 per gram projection, some patients may find it easier to acquire the narcotic unlawfully. The new regulations, for instance, oblige patients to order their prescription via courier. On the contrary, illicit narcotics (and marijuana, in particular) are easily accessible and comparatively priced, if not cheaper, without the inconvenience of waiting. Furthermore, given that efforts to eradicate the drug-trade have failed, prohibiting patients from cultivating their own plants without a license or purchasing marijuana illegally is unlikely to be effective.

Of medicinal marijuana’s various advantages, its low-cost compared to other remedies is, perhaps, most compelling. Until Ottawa liberates consumers from Health Canada’s monopolistic shackles, however, producers will have no incentive to reduce costs and patients will continue to suffer. In fact, the sheer cost of operating under the new regulations, as opposed to the cost of in-home cultivation, may chronically reinforce higher-than-average prices.

Realizing the free market’s full potential, and the benefits thereof, necessitates uninhibited competition, not only horizontally between producers, but also vertically between consumers and their suppliers. Health Canada’s MMPRs, though, remove these benefits and unnecessarily burden patients by requiring them to forego their ability to cultivate (or acquire) a cheaper product. In effect, these reforms insulate government-sponsored producers from their fiercest competition: consumers.

Shaun Fantauzzo is a policy analyst and the AIMS on Campus Project Coordinator at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies

*This piece appeared in the 12 December 2013 opinion section of the Vancouver Sun