Meet the 24-Year-Old Fighting for Canadian Cannabis Patients’ Rights

Jonathan Zaid never imagined that his chronic illness would set him on a path to leadership, helping Canadian patients gain access to affordable medicinal cannabis. But since becoming the founder and executive director of Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana (CFAMM), in 2014, Zaid can’t imagine doing anything else.

Zaid’s journey to cannabis leadership began in his teens, when he began experiencing constant intense headaches.

Zaid’s journey to cannabis leadership began in his teens. At 14, Zaid began experiencing constant intense headaches and insomnia, which made focusing in school impossible. After being diagnosed with New Daily Persistent Headache, he visited a slew of doctors in an effort to find some relief.

“For five years, I tried more than 40 medications, different types of therapies, went to the leading neurology clinic in North America,” he says. “I found nothing helped.”

Through online research, Zaid learned of others with his ailment who had positive breakthroughs from using cannabis. When he tried it, he found immediate relief from pain, and his insomnia subsided. But Zaid would spend another year trying to find a doctor who would support and authorize his use of the drug.

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When he was finally able to legally take medicinal cannabis for his conditions, Zaid had other hoops to jump through. The federal government was changing their cannabis statute from the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR) to the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR). Zaid was on the right path to helping his condition, but that path was riddled with bureaucratic loopholes.

“I saw that affordability was crucial for patients, including myself, yet there were no organizations willing to speak about it at the time.”
Jonathan Zaid

“I finally found a physician but struggled with consistent access as well as lack of insurance coverage,” he says.

Zaid looked for non-profits that advocated for medicinal cannabis patients. The only organizations he could find focused on home-growing rights and not on issues like insurance coverage.

“I saw that affordability was crucial for patients, including myself, yet there were no organizations willing to speak about it at the time and represent patients on such a vital issue,” he says.

In 2014, the same year Zaid gained access to medical cannabis, he took his university’s student health plan to task, after they refused to cover his new treatment. The University of Waterloo’s committee that reviewed which drugs were covered under the student health plan argued that since there was no drug identification number (DIN) for medical cannabis, it couldn’t qualify.

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It didn’t take long for Zaid to poke a hole in that argument.

“They previously covered a medication I used from the US, which didn’t have a drug identification number,” he says. “By that, I’d proved that a medication without a DIN could be covered and used that as the basis for why they could cover cannabis.”

Zaid worked with the committee to show how much money could be saved in lieu of other insured medicines he wouldn’t be using anymore, along with the positive impacts cannabis had on his condition, and in turn, his studies.

“In the end, they agreed with it, approved my case and that allowed other students the precedent to go through that process and prove a medical need for cannabis and provide the documentation and get coverage,” he says.

“I (launched CFAMM) out of the lack of support for cannabis patients that were looking to use this as a medicine and not necessarily go down the litigious route.”
Jonathan Zaid

From there, CFAMM was launched.

“I did it out of the lack of support in the space for cannabis patients that were looking to use this as a medicine and not necessarily go down the litigious route as well,” Zaid says. “I really tried to build it into an evidence-based organization.”

It’s now considered to be one of the most credible non-profits to represent medical cannabis patients, working collaboratively with government, the medical community, and the cannabis industry to ensure that patients are represented professionally.

Zaid, who is now 24, is the face of the organization, though he works with 30 volunteers across the country. The role has forced him to step away from his studies full time, since it requires a lot of travel.

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Since launching CFAMM, he has come to learn that for every victory, there are many more battles to be fought.

In November 2017, the federal proposed an excised tax to both recreational and medicinal cannabis, going against everything CFAMM was working towards.

In response to the government’s proposed levy on cannabis, CFAMM launched a campaign called Don’t Tax Medicine.

Part of CFAMM’s mandate is to advocate against sales tax, both GST and HST, since no other prescriptions are subject to a levy. They do this in conjunction with the Arthritis society, the AIDS society and a several other non-profits.

In response to the government’s proposed levy on cannabis, CFAMM launched a campaign called Don’t Tax Medicine, which calls for the elimination of both sales tax and the new proposed DIN tax. Zaid says that so far over 16,000 Canadians have sent letters to their MPs, and the campaign has garnered support from a dozen non-profits as well as a group of leading physicians.

“We’re really happy to see the momentum the campaign is building but at the same time, the government only has one decision to fairly treat medical marijuana and that’s to eliminate tax on it,” he says. “We haven’t received any decisions at this point but we’ll continue to advocate strongly until we hear positive change from the government.”

While positive change might come slow from the federal level, Zaid says Canadians’ attitudes are changing, as the country moves towards legalization.

Along with the fight to gain insured medicine for patients, CFAMM is also focused on calling the government to fund research on medical marijuana.

“I haven’t been doing this that long, so I have seen in that short time a tremendous shift in stigma away from medical cannabis,” he says. “There’s still opposition. But the amount of acceptance that medical cannabis has amongst the general population and decision makers and MPs, you can see the advocacy work done across the country has driven a lot of change.”

Along with the fight to gain insured medicine for patients, CFAMM is also focused on calling the government to fund research on medical marijuana.

“So far they’ve committed millions to enforcement and other monitoring program around legalization and that’s positive but we really need to see investment in medical marijuana research so we can fully understand how it works,” he says.

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In January, the federal government announced it would spend $1.4 million on cannabis-related research, showing progress in the work CFAMM does.

Zaid says the most rewarding part of what he does comes from hearing stories of the positive impact his work has on the lives of Canadians.

“We often hear how patients feel alone and stigmatized, so hearing that we’re making a difference in their lives is a great motivation and always will drive the work that we do,” he says.