OTTAWA -- Medical marijuana patients are bracing for an uphill battle in their bid to convince the federal government to exempt medicinal cannabis from excise taxes.
Their lobbying effort will begin once MPs start debating the government's budget implementation bill, which in its current form would apply the taxes to all but a small group of cannabis-based drugs.
Patients and doctors groups fear that, as a result, those cannabis medications not exempted from the tax will be too expensive for patients who already struggle to make ends meet.
They say they are planning to lobby federal officials to change the bill before it becomes law.
Gerald Major, president of the Canadian Spondylitis Association, says he and other patient advocates plan to push federal officials for a change, even though the Liberal government has so far refused to budge.
"What we can do, and what we will continue to do, is to continue to be at the table, continue to act reasonably and responsibly and try to look for solutions," Major said.
The government says exempting medicinal cannabis could lead to abuse of the existing medical marijuana system.
The government wants to tax legal marijuana at either $1 per gram or one-tenth of a product's price, whichever is greater.
The February budget outlined plans to waive that new tax for some cannabis-based pharmaceutical products, including oils that contain low amounts of THC, the primary psychoactive element in marijuana.
Jonathan Zaid, founder of Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana, said his advocacy group met ministers, department officials and various MPs to explain the merits of exempting all cannabis-based pharmaceuticals from the excise tax.
Zaid said he believed the message had been heard.
What was in the budget came as something of a surprise to Zaid and his colleagues.
"There is still time before it's implemented to work within the proposal to make it the best possible for patients," he said.
The Liberals heard concerns about the proposal to apply an excise tax to medical cannabis products through two separate consultations held last year -- one by the Finance Department, the other by Health Canada. A summary report of the Health Canada consultations noted most respondents opposed applying excise taxes to medical cannabis products.
Major said the taxation proposal could also create two classes of medical marijuana patients: those who can cover the extra costs, and those who will have to decide between their medicine and rent or hydro.
"You're really limiting patients to what they can afford, not what their condition requires," said Major, whose condition forced him to give up his career as a hedge fund manager six years ago.