April 5, 2016 – Why medical marijuana should be exempt by sales tax

The authors are members of the Canadian Medical Cannabis Council patient advisory committee: Lynne Belle-Isle (Canadian AIDS Society), Joanne Simons (Arthritis Society), Cody Lindsay (The Wellness Soldier), Jonathan Zaid (Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana), Sharon Baxter (Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association), Sandy Smeenk (Improving the Lives of Children) and Jackie Manthorne (Canadian Cancer Survivor Network).

While Canada engages in complex dialogue about how best to regulate the sale of cannabis for adult use, tens of thousands of Canadians are currently authorized to use cannabis to treat a variety of symptoms and medical conditions. They have obtained this authorization from a physician or nurse practitioner, the only way they can use it legally under current regulations.

Research funded by the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Healthy Living and Chronic Disease Prevention has shown that for many Canadians with chronic medical conditions, a lack of affordability can be a barrier to using cannabis for medical purposes. Sales tax on medical cannabis only adds to the financial burden.

Among research participants who reported buying cannabis for medical purposes, the median amount spent was $200 a month. Likewise, more than half of respondents who currently use cannabis for medical purposes report that they can never or only sometimes afford to buy enough cannabis to relieve their symptoms. The proportion was higher – approximately two-thirds – among those who reported fair to poor general health. Perhaps more importantly, a third of respondents stated that they often or always have to choose between medical cannabis and other necessities, such as food, rent and other medicines.

Health Canada has reiterated that cannabis should be treated like other prescription drugs. Canada’s Excise Tax Act specifies that drugs prescribed by a health-care practitioner that are not available over the counter are zero-rated and not subject to federal and provincial tax. Under the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, medical cannabis can only be purchased with a medical document obtained from a health-care practitioner. This medical document has been acknowledged as being akin to a prescription by the Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons in Ontario, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Saskatchewan.

While Canada will likely benefit greatly from the sales tax revenue from the legal adult recreational cannabis market, this should not come at the expense of people who need it for medical purposes. With sales tax unfairly applied and few cost-coverage options available, patients who cannot afford their medicine are suffering.

The removal of sales tax from medical cannabis is a simple and effective first step to increase affordability.

The Canadian Medical Cannabis Council has taken an active leadership role in advocating for this straightforward but critical change. Interim executive director Philippe Lucas has already met with the Ministry of Finance, making the case that removing this financial barrier for those who rely on legal medical cannabis is a low cost, non-controversial investment in the well-being of Canadian patients with a high level of public support, as demonstrated by the 8,000-plus signatures gathered so far in a petition to that end.

As members of CMCC’s patient advisory committee, we represent the interests of people who use cannabis for medical purposes. Together, we join the growing number of voices calling for the minister to treat medical cannabis like other medical necessities and exempt it from sales tax.

Medical cannabis is not just another commodity. For many people, it’s a medical necessity. It should receive the same zero-rating as other prescription medications.