Cannabis industry hopeful with new health ministers

| David Brown

Two cannabis industry leaders say they are hopeful that new appointments to the health ministry could bode well for their efforts at lobbying for changes to Canada’s cannabis regulations, especially hot button issues like taxes on medical cannabis. 

Following the recent election, Justin Trudeau announced his new cabinet this week, with two new health ministers replacing former Minister of Health Patty Hajdu.

Jean-Yves Duclos, former president of the Treasury Board, has replaced Patty Hajdu as the minister of health, while Carolyn Bennett takes on the role of Associate Minister of Health, along with a new position of Minister of Mental Health and Addictions.

Hajdu has overseen the role since 2019. She has now been moved to Minister of Indigenous Services and Minister responsible for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Northern Ontario.

Duclos and Bennet step into their new roles with the health ministry as Health Canada begins a three-year review of the Cannabis Act, culminating in a report to be tabled in the house by the spring of 2023. Health Canada is the federal agency tasked with managing the cannabis file. 

While Duclos comes from a background in economics, Bennet was a family physician for 20 years before her career in politics and has been an outspoken advocate for medical cannabis access. In 2011 she even joined activists protesting Canada’s limited Harper-era medical access regulations and long wait times for approvals from Health Canada.

Having an economist on the one hand and a medical practitioner with a really strong background in community medicine, I think for the cannabis industry and medicinal cannabis specifically, I think it’s a very impressive team lineup for our sector

George Smitherman, Cannabis council of Canada

Although the three-year review of the federal Cannabis Act is expected to be fairly limited in its scope, focussing on the impacts of legalization on public health and safety in Canada, many in the cannabis industry hope to see even greater changes to several aspects of the Cannabis Act. 

More about the expectations for their roles will be available when their mandate letters are made public.  

Jennawae McLean, the new Executive Director of Norml Canada, says she’s hopeful that the new appointments will bring a level of expertise to the cannabis file, especially in light of many concerns that the industry, as well as consumers, medical and otherwise, have.

“We would like to congratulate Jean Yves Duclos on his appointment as Health Minister,” says McLean. “We are hoping with his experience as President of the Treasury Board and with his economic background he will be able to contribute to the exponential growth and revenue potential of the cannabis industry.” 

The industry faces numerous concerns when it comes to being able to operate in the legal space, especially with high rates of taxation, she explains. 

“We want to protect the viability of small and medium-sized players in our industry, specifically through a review of the burdensome excise tax and other issues related to profitability. With the Cannabis Act review happening next year, we are excited to see Dr. Carolyn Bennett appointed with her background in mental health, harm reduction, and addictions. We have aligned values, especially with harm reduction, and hope to work with her in the coming year.”

George Smitherman, president and CEO of the Cannabis Council of Canada, an industry organization representing several licenced cannabis producers, says the extensive backgrounds of both Duclos and Bennet could be just what the cannabis industry is looking for. 

“Having an economist on the one hand and a medical practitioner with a really strong background in community medicine, I think for the cannabis industry and medicinal cannabis specifically, I think it’s a very impressive team lineup for our sector,” says Smitherman. “There’s a real patient access challenge. So having people around the cabinet table who actually know what it’s like for the patients, bodes well for medicinal cannabis.” 

And for issues like taxation, Smitherman says other ministries will be equally important. 

“Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland and (Minister of International Trade, Export Promotion, Small Business and Economic Development) Mary Ng are also going to be very important for us to continue to look for relief on the excise tax, especially on medical cannabis.”

McLean agrees that taxation of medical cannabis is a major priority for her organization as well. 

“For too long cannabis patients have been treated as an afterthought and inconvenience. Our top priority at NORML is to focus on eliminating tax for patients. No other medication is taxed and cannabis shouldn’t be any different. Further, we need increased in-person access points for patients. Online advanced ordering is not accessible or convenient.”

When it comes to the three-year review, as well as the planned five-year review of the medical cannabis program, having not only these ministers involved, but others inside and outside government will be key, says Smitherman. 

“We are concerned that (Health Canada) was signalling a fine-tuning exercise and we really feel that’s not going to meet with the expectations that are out there for a wide perspective of concerns with three years under our belt. The review shouldn’t just be the bureaucrats at Health Canada reviewing themselves. We would like to see some outside perspectives on this, too.”