As Canadian medical cannabis slump continues, survey says cost an issue

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The high cost of medical cannabis poses major obstacles for Canadian patients, even as recreational marijuana prices remain low, a new survey of thousands of Canadians suggests.

The finding comes as a slump in consumer spending on regulated medical cannabis in Canada continues, with Statistics Canada data showing sales worth 101 million Canadian dollars (roughly $75 million) in the fourth quarter of 2022.

That CA$101 million figure represents a 3.8% decline from the same quarter in 2021 and a 34% tumble from the fourth quarter of 2018, when Canada legalized recreational cannabis.

It equals 7.5% of legal recreational cannabis spending in the fourth quarter of 2022.

The Medical Cannabis Access Survey released this month by a group of Canadian university researchers and medical marijuana patient groups surveyed 5,744 respondents over five months in 2022, mostly “daily consumers of medical cannabis with more than 10 years of experience.”

Study is ‘one of largest’

The online survey did not use a random sample, so its findings cannot be generalized to the Canadian population as a whole.

However, the large sample size makes the study “one of the largest to examine Canadians’ medical cannabis use and experiences in the past decade,” according to the report.

As MJBizDaily has reported, some Canadian cannabis companies are focusing on patients covered by employee benefit plans as a strategy to grow their share of the higher-margin medical marijuana market.

However, few survey respondents had their medical cannabis covered by such plans.

“Despite over half of individuals with current medical (cannabis) authorization having some form of private health insurance, only 6% reported being successful in receiving reimbursement for medical cannabis-related expenses,” the survey noted.

The survey found that median out-of-pocket spending on medical cannabis was CA$125 per month, and 39% of respondents spent more than CA$200 per month.

Those costs are "a travesty," said Dr. Michael Dworkind, a palliative care physician and medical director of Sante Cannabis, a Montreal medical marijuana clinic and one of the groups behind the survey.

"In our socialized health care system, people should not be paying for their drugs," Dworkind told MJBizDaily.

Dworkind said he has patients who spend CA$250 per month on medical cannabis.

"They have to give up eating," he said. "These are people who lose their jobs because they're disabled - car accidents, work accidents and so on.

"It's tragic that this is a huge barrier."

The survey also found that respondents who earned less than CA$35,000 per year spent roughly CA$50 more per month on medical cannabis than higher-income respondents.

Among the 3.5% of respondents who had used medical cannabis in the past but no longer did, the most common reason given for stopping was the cost (48%).

In Quebec, where Sante Cannabis is based, the provincial government's Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC) recreational cannabis retail monopoly keeps prices low to compete against the illicit market.

Dworkind said some patients buy cannabis from SQDC's recreational stores "instead of going to the licensed producers who (Sante Cannabis is) aligned with, who give us research and development dollars so that we can stay alive."

"Our doctors are paid on Medicare, but everything else is paid through our licensed producers," Dworkind explained.

"Research money is dried up," he continued.

"Five years ago, we were getting significant amounts of money for our research.

"Now they say, 'Our budgets can't handle it.'"

Medical cannabis program favored

Regardless of the cost challenges reported by survey respondents, "the majority of individuals in this study supported the continuation of the medical cannabis program in Canada," according to the report.

"Individuals reported that being able to claim medical cannabis-related expenses on tax forms, receiving compassionate pricing from licensed sellers, and being allowed higher possession limits were important aspects of the medical cannabis program."

Respondents also suggested that medical cannabis should be made available through pharmacies, according to the report.

"Being able to consult a pharmacist about dose and product, discuss possible interactions with other medications, and obtain medical cannabis in a timely manner were all reasons provided for allowing medical cannabis to be distributed through pharmacies in Canada."

Major Canadian pharmacy chain Shoppers Drug Mart announced it was exiting its medical cannabis distribution business in late March.

Solomon Israel can be reached at solomon.israel@mjbizdaily.com.