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Changes to medical marijuana system unwise, CMA president says

Health Canada to proceed with reform despite objections

Health Canada's proposed changes will increase costs and may make it more difficult for patients to access the "natural remedy." Credit: Stock photo
Health Canada’s proposed changes to the country’s medical marijuana system have some critics, including the president of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and staff at the AIDS Committee of Ottawa (ACO), claiming the reforms will do more harm than good for Canadians living with HIV/AIDS.
 
The changes, set to come into effect March 31, 2014, eliminate marijuana prescriptions issued by the federal government and revoke personal production of the plant in favour of licensed commercial producers.
 
Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq says the aim is to reduce abuse of the system.
 
In 2002, 500 Canadians accessed the medical marijuana system. By 2012, it served more than 26,000 people.
 
Under the proposed changes, patients would rely on a doctor’s prescription to obtain marijuana.
 
Caleb Chepesiuk, ACO’s manager of education and prevention, says many doctors are not well educated on the benefits of medical marijuana and this lack of awareness is a constant problem for Canadians living with serious illness. Doctors who do not believe in the benefits of medical marijuana will not write prescriptions, he says.
 
“Getting that prescription can really depend on the doctor you have. That learning curve has been a problem for people living with HIV but also for people, in general, accessing the program,” says Chepesiuk, who suggests that if doctors and nurses become more educated about marijuana, removing Health Canada from the equation could have a positive impact on the system.
 
“It’s essentially an added layer of bureaucracy. To get a prescription for HIV meds, for example, you don’t have to have Heath Canada’s approval; you just go to the doctor. I think there is some benefit for people to get out of that,” he adds.
 
The CMA has lobbied Heath Canada persistently to stop the proposed changes, but president Dr Anna Reid says it has not taken any of CMA’s concerns into consideration.
 
Reid says that marijuana is not a prescription drug and that this is the CMA’s greatest concern. 
 
“It does not have a standardized dosage or formula that any other drug would have. Our concern is that we are being asked to write it as a prescription without any of the knowledge or research behind it,” Reid says.
 
There is no other drug on the market that has not gone through an adequate trial process, Reid says, but she is concerned that the proposed changes will leave HIV and cancer patients without an option to relieve their symptoms.
 
The main benefit marijuana provides for people living with HIV/AIDS is an increased appetite, Chepesiuk says, noting that it can reduce symptoms such as wasting syndrome and mitigate the toll HIV medications take on the body.
 
Under the proposed changes, the cost of medical marijuana will increase — a prospect that worries both Reid and Chepesiuk. The increase is due to the costs of commercial production and security at the government-sanctioned facilities.
 
Chepesiuk is most concerned for Canadians living with HIV who rely on disability or social support.
 
Greg Williams, a manager at BC’s Cannabis Culture, says that marijuana is not a drug and that he is dumbfounded that our government still treats the “herbal remedy” as one.
 
“I’m surprised that the adult men and women who call themselves members of Parliament can’t wrap their heads around this subject and get it corrected. It’s a very bad thing that is going on here in Canada.”
 
The CMA will continue to lobby Health Canada for a proper system, Reid says.
 
“We continue to ask them to team up with researchers and potentially pharmaceutical companies to actually do the proper trials and research on medical marijuana so we actually know what we’re talking about and we can safely prescribe it for our patients.”
 
ACO will host a talk on the medical marijuana program Thursday, March 28 at 5:30pm.

To RSVP, send an email to Claire Touchette, harm reduction program coordinator, at harmreduction@aco-cso.ca or call 613-238-5014, x252.