Canada: Federal Court rules location data of large medical cannabis growers can’t be disclosed

Canada’s Globe & Mail reports on their court case

A years-long access-to-information battle between journalists and Health Canada over data on the locations of large-scale medical cannabis growers has concluded with a Federal Court judge ruling that even city or town information could risk identifying patients and is therefore protected from disclosure.

The case, which was taken to court by the federal Information Commissioner on behalf of a Globe and Mail reporter and another journalist in 2020, addresses the tension between the public’s right to information and a patient’s right to privacy, and the necessity of striking a balance in an increasingly data-centric world.

One expert who reviewed the decision said that health information – including the postal codes of licensed medical cannabis growers – must be treated sensitively. But another said he fears the decision will be taken by the government as licence to abdicate its responsibility to provide full responses to access-to-information requests.

The court battle started with an access request filed by The Globe in August, 2017, seeking a list of addresses for individual people who were licensed to grow and possess industrial quantities of cannabis, meaning hundreds of plants at a time.

The request was made as part of an investigation into personal yet industrial-scale marijuana farms under the now-defunct medical marijuana regime of the time. The Globe found that these farms – licensed and shielded by health privacy laws – created a shadow market in which individual people, who were either patients or their designates, were able to collectively churn out as much marijuana as some commercial producers, with none of the scrutiny. As a result, The Globe found, they became prime targets for robberies and abuse by organized crime.

Health Canada denied The Globe’s request, arguing that providing even general location details for these operations, despite their industrial scale, could risk breaching medical marijuana patients’ private health information. Only province-level information was provided. A similar request around that same time by Toronto-based freelance journalist Patrick Cain was also denied.

That fall, The Globe and Mr. Cain both appealed the decisions to the Information Commissioner, who agreed that at least two or three digits of the postal codes of operations in more populous regions should be made available, and, in a rare move, ultimately decided to take Health Canada to court when the department still refused to release the information.

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