The federal government is getting out of the medical marijuana-production business, opening the market to companies that meet “strict security requirements,” Health Canada said Sunday in announcing sweeping proposed changes to the medical marijuana system.

The federal agency’s goal is to treat marijuana as it does any other narcotic used for medical reasons. Doctors will essentially fill out a medical document similar to a prescription, which patients can take to a licensed producer.

Currently, patients apply to Health Canada to take part in the Marijuana Medical Access Program. When their application is accepted, they are able to either grow the marijuana at home or purchase it from a government producer.

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said Sunday that under the new guidelines, patients will no longer apply to Health Canada for medical marijuana, and home production will be phased out.

“Under our new rule, only facilities that meet strict security requirements will be able to produce marijuana for medical purposes,” Aglukkaq told reporters at a news conference in Maple Ridge, B.C.

“And because it will no longer be produced in homes, this may make it easier for local municipalities to pass zoning bylaws, for example, requiring any commercial production to take place outside of residential neighbourhoods.”

Aglukkaq said the changes are partially a response to concerns raised by doctors and patients about red tape. However, some groups criticized the proposed changes.

On Sunday, the Canadian Medical Association said the government has a role to play in regulating a substance for which there is little clinical evidence of efficacy.

“There's huge potential for harm to patients and the federal government's decision is equivalent to asking doctors to prescribe while blindfolded," said CMA president Dr. Anna Reid.

As well, other groups expressed concern that the changes will mean higher costs for patients.

As the federal government gets out of the medical marijuana business, taxpayers will no longer be subsidizing its sale.

Under the current program, the marijuana costs about $5 per gram. Under the proposed changes, that price will rise to about $8.80 a gram.

Rade Kovacevic, the president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, which supports community cannabis dispensaries, said he “remains concerned that patients will continue facing barriers to access.”

According to Kovacevic, more than 50 per cent of medical marijuana users get their supply from dispensaries.

In 2002, fewer than 500 patients were authorized to take part in the Marijuana Medical Access Program, a number that has since grown to more than 26,000 patients, Aglukkaq told reporters.

The rapid growth of the program has led to skyrocketing costs that are “unsustainable,” Aglukkaq said, making the changes necessary.

“Under the program, individuals will be able to choose their licensed producer based on strength, price, quality and customer service,” Aglukkaq said.

The health minister also told reporters the proposed changes were a response to law enforcement concerns about the potential for criminal activity.

Jim Chu, Chief Constable of the Vancouver Police, spoke Sunday on behalf of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, which praised the announced changes.

Chu said the association’s drug abuse committee has documented “many negative consequences” of the medical marijuana program. For instance, even licensed growers hire unlicensed plumbers and electricians to help them set up their operation, which can increase the risk of fires and flooding, Chu said.

Chu also said some individuals abuse the system by applying for multiple licenses, while others sell the marijuana when they grow more than they can use.

Growers are also at risk from criminals who would rather just steal marijuana to sell.

“These changes are necessary to reduce the risk of abuse and exploitation by criminal elements,” Chu told the B.C. news conference.

The government’s goal is to have the new guidelines in place by March 31, 2013, with the new system fully implemented by April 2014. However, Canadians have the opportunity to weigh in on the proposed changes over a 75-day comment period that ends on Feb. 28.

With files from The Canadian Press