Medical marijuana: Advocates of medicinal pot are asking why governments aren’t turning to cannabis to help patients caught in the opioid drug crisis sweeping Canada
The London Free Press/ By Jonathan Sher /
Lorraine Fay of London wants to avoid becoming the latest victim of an opioid crisis that’s sweeping across Canada and leaving a trail of addicts and corpses.
But her efforts have been stymied by a health care system that insures the cost of opioids for those on disability, but not an alternative — medical marijuana — that some doctors say is far safer and more effective.
“Our government is fighting this opioid crisis, so why not fund medical marijuana?” Fay said.
She’s hardly alone.
Doctors who are leaders prescribing medical marijuana in London and Thunder Bay say they’re inundated with patients who want to get off opioids, but can’t afford to buy medical marijuana that in London costs about $10 a gram.
“This is what I talk about every day with patients. I’ll probably have this conversation 10 times today,” Dr. Michael Hart said./
A family doctor who graduated from Western University in 2012, Hart says he sees at least 3,000 patients at his office near Richmond Row, Ready To Go Clinic. “Many of my patients tell me they want to try medical cannabis but they can’t afford it.”
Ontario, like other provinces, pays for opioids for people on disability assistance, despite the drugs’ toll of death and addiction.
In London, opioids kill dozens each year and lead to so many overdoses, the city has Canada’s third-highest rate of hospitalization for opioid emergencies.
But despite a death toll that’s led to declarations of opioid crises across Canada, when asked why governments don’t help patients pay for medical marijuana, the Ontario and federal governments, both of them Liberal, appeared to pass the buck to one another.
Asked why Ontario’s health insurance plan doesn’t cover the costs of medical marijuana that some studies show is more effective and safer than opioids, a spokesperson for Health Minister Eric Hoskins said the province lacks authority to cover the cost because medical marijuana hasn’t been approved by Health Canada under the Food and Drugs Act.
Told of Hoskins’ position, Health Canada pointed to regulations passed 13 months ago that exempted medical marijuana and cannabis from the Food and Drugs Act.
Hoskins’ spokesperson then tossed the ball of responsibility back to the feds, writing in an email that the exemption only meant that providers of medical marijuana could obtain licences from Health Canada.
“The fact remains that medical cannabis has not been reviewed by Health Canada’s Therapeutic Products Directorate for safety and efficacy, which is a necessary step of the drug coverage approval process,” Hoskins’ spokesperson wrote.
A spokesperson for Health Canada said the agency would need more time to respond to questions asked by The Free Press, including:
— Is there a national common drug review process underway for medical marijuana?
— Can a review only be triggered by an application from a drug manufacturer, and if that’s true, does that leave those who need medical marijuana in the cold, since no single company produces enough of that drug to justify the costs of seeking a review?
— In August 2016, following a ruling by the Federal Court of Canada, Health Canada promised “reasonable access” to medical cannabis. Is access reasonable when so many Canadians can’t afford to buy it?
While bureaucrats jockey over who’s responsible for not covering the costs of medical marijuana, countless Canadians are exposed to the risks of opioids, and many in Thunder Bay have sought out the help of Dr. Shelley Turner, a family doctor from Manitoba who has specialized in helping addicts during a career she began as a volunteer paramedic and continued as a nurse before graduating from medical school at McMaster University in Hamilton.
“I’m getting 10 to 15 new referrals a week,” she said.
For many, medical cannabis has turned their lives around, she said, with one patient able to wean themselves off not only opioids but most of the 14 medicines he’d used to control pain and sleep at night. In 14 months he lost 60 pounds and the need for all but three medications – Tylenol 3, cannabis oil and cannabis vapor.
“This guy is thinking about (finally) returning to the work force. This is not uncommon,” Turner said. “Many believe cannabis is the exit drug from (many) medications.”
No city in Canada has a higher rate of opioid addicts than did Thunder Bay as of 2015, she said.
BY THE NUMBERS: OPIOIDS
- One in seven: The ratio of Ontarians who used an opioid in 2016.
- Four in five: Ratio of opioid that are accidental
- 734: Number of opioid deaths in Canada in 2015, nearly double the death toll from vehicle collisions and a four-fold increase since 1991
- 548 per cent: Increase in use of fentanyl, a powerful opioid painkiller, since 2006
- 975 per cent: Increase in use of heroin since 2006
- 232 per cent: Increase in use of hydromorphone since 2006
*Source: Ontario Drug Policy Research Network
MEDICAL MARIJUANA STUDIES: KEY FINDINGS
- In U.S. states that allow medical marijuana, deaths from opioid overdoses were reduced significantly (JAMA Internal Medicine, 2015)
- Patients found cannabis effectively treated pain and mental health, and substituted its use for prescription drugs (63 per cent), particularly pharmaceutical opioids (30 per cent), benzodiazepines (16 per cent), and anti-depressants (12 per cent). (International Journal of Drug Policy. 2017)
- Patients suffering with chronic pain report they often replace opioids and other drugs with medical cannabis and report the latter to be more effective, with fewer side effects. (The Journal of Pain, 2016)
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