Cannabis on display is seen during a media tour of a cannabis store in Kingston, Ont., Sunday, March 31, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

COVID-19: Canadians having to risk exposure for access to Medicinal Cannabis

The COVID-19 crisis has turned life upside down for most Canadians. 

Social distancing and self-isolation have vastly altered our daily realities. It has made simple things, like getting groceries and medication, much more complicated. Strict isolation requirements mean that many people are heavily relying on delivery services in order to meet basic needs.  

However, as this maelstrom continues, Canada Post has altered their policies and regulations in response to the crisis. 

In a recent announcement, they said that they will no longer be delivering packages that require personal interaction, such as a signature and age verification. This is an effort to minimize contact, and the potential for transmission, between individuals. 

While this seems like a prudent step in the fight against COVID-19, it presents an extra layer of added-complication – and risk – for cannabis users. 

After all, cannabis products delivered by mail ordinarily require now-restricted person-to-person deliveries, which means that Canada Post will not be delivering them to Canadians for the foreseeable future. 

Instead of receiving online orders at their doors, Canadians can now expect to receive a notice card with the address of the post office location where their product is being held and instructions for picking it up. They will then be required to leave their home, travel to the post office and interact with a Canada Post employee, including proof of identification and age, for the purposes of picking up their parcel. 

This poses a clear and unnecessary risk to the community and to the individual themselves. 

After all, many cannabis users are medicinal users. They often have complicated medical issues. Just going outside on a regular day can present difficulties to someone suffering from chronic pain, terminal illness, immobility or immunosuppression – let alone going outside during a pandemic. 

Those who suffer from chronic illness have a higher risk for exposure, and if they become sick, their symptoms will be much more severe. This could mean life threatening complications. 

This leaves many medicinal cannabis users in a precarious position. They are forced to choose between access to essential medication and the risk posed by journeying into an unsafe world. 

Without proper access to cannabis, medicinal users will suffer. They are legally entitled to their medication. This was recognized by our law makers nearly a decade ago, when the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations came into effect, providing medical access to patients prescribed cannabis to treat a variety of medical conditions. 

But complications around the COVID-19 pandemic are putting these rights at risk. 

And to make a hazy situation even hazier, the definition of essential services is somewhat open to interpretation from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, causing some cannabis users to wonder whether they will have access to a legal supply while waiting this pandemic out. 

Although grocery stores, gas stations, banks and traditional pharmacies are essential services, cannabis dispensaries occupy a more uncertain space. 

Across the border, differences in the definition of essential are clearly illustrated in the state of California. There, access to cannabis in this time of crisis depends on the county. 

In L.A. County, cannabis dispensaries with a medicinal license are clearly defined as an essential service. They will remain open and accessible. In San Francisco, dispensaries were allowed to remain open, but only after first ordered to close after being deemed non-essential. 

Here, the situation is not much better. Access to cannabis will largely depend on provincial decision-making. 

For example, Prince Edward Island has ordered all liquor and cannabis stores to close, as they are deemed non-essential services. Alberta, on the other hand, is allowing business owners to decide whether they should remain open or close their doors. While medicinal dispensaries in B.C. remain open – for now – certainty in access becomes more precarious with each passing day. 

It is likely that, if the situation continues to worsen, sales will be largely moved online. 

If this occurs, cannabis users will find themselves back at square one – stuck in a sticky situation and caught between accessing their medicine or putting themselves and others in harms’ way.