April 1, 2014 3:48 pm
Updated: April 1, 2014 7:50 pm

Doctors uneasy being ‘gatekeepers’ under new medical pot rules

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WATCH: The rules governing the use of medical marijuana in Canada expire today, but federal legislators are still dragging their heels to provide a program that meets patients’ needs. Jennifer Tryon reports.

Chris Simpson is more than a little apprehensive about doctors doling out marijuana to patients, something that became the sole responsibility for Canadian physicians on Tuesday with the arrival of revamped regulations for the distribution of medicinal cannabis.

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“I think physicians need to be very wary about prescribing it,” Simpson said.

As the head of the country’s medical association, that’s saying a lot.

“This isn’t a moral stance against marijuana nothing like that at all,” the doctor insists.

It’s the void of rigorous medical research surrounding the plant and its uses that has Simpson troubled.

“If we were launching a new drug for heart disease or cancer, I doubt very many Canadians would jump on board a medication that’s never really been tested properly.”

As of April 1, however, Health Canada officially handed off full responsibility of deciding who receives medicinal marijuana to the country’s doctors, who will be empowered with the ability to prescribe patients up to 150 grams of cannabis a month. (Although an injunction has been granted that keeps the old rules in place for legacy users while a legal challenge goes on.)

“We’re being cast into the role of gatekeepers for an otherwise illegal drug,” Simpson said, adding that the vast majority of the country’s physicians are unprepared.

“Right now we don’t know what dose to prescribe, we don’t know how it’s going to interfere with a patient’s profile, and importantly, we don’t know what kind of [health] conditions would benefit from it.”

Under a 2000 Supreme Court of Canada ruling, about 38,000 Canadians have been licensed by Health Canada to grow their own cannabis or have it grown for them to provide relief for a range of illnesses, including HIV and multiple sclerosis.

‘Never overdose’

Proponents swear by the plant’s ability to alleviate chronic pain, stimulate appetite and generally comfort patients living with long-term or terminal ailments.

Tracy Curley, a 41-year-old diabetic who says she suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, says smoking about 150 grams of pot a month grown by her licenced grower “improves her quality of life.”

She became a licenced marijuana user in 2010.

“Frankly, I look at the prescriptions that I’m prescribed by my doctors. They’re legal and they could kill me. And I could never overdose on this,” she told Global News. “Never.”

The CMA says there’s little if any verified proof of cannabis’ benefits beyond anecdotal evidence.

Still, the new Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations is set to see scores of large commercial growers replace individual users, a development that will dramatically ramp up production of cannabis as well as sales – which can be taxed.

Health Canada says that the market place of commercial growers will be able to serve as many as 450,000 registered users within the next several years.

Chuck Rifici is one such entrepreneur.

Rifici established Tweed Inc in Smith Falls, Ont., a commercial grow op that has secured about 1,000 customer registrations but with plans to expand production exponentially over the next several years.

“Some people were waiting years to get access to marijuana. With this new MMPR regulation that allows companies like Tweed to participate, it’s now just a one-page document that’s very much like a prescription,” he said.

There are about 4,000 medical practitioners who have prescribed medicinal marijuana to patients across the country since 2001, or less than five per cent of doctors in Canada.

The vast majority of practitioners have little knowledge or familiarity with cannabis, according to experts.

Rifici says his business model hinges on additional doctors getting educated on the merits of prescribing marijuana, or better methods for connecting customers to doctors who are willing to write them a prescription.

“We’ll be where we need to be when a patient who wants to get access to medicinal marijuana is able to without having trouble finding a medical practitioner that can provide access,” Rifici said.

In fact, with the arrival of the new regulatory regime this week, websites such as www.marijuanadoctors.com have sprouted up claiming they can link potential customers with doctors who can facilitate the prescription.

‘Big Marijuana’

There’s plenty of interest among potential growers. As of February, Health Canada had received nearly 500 applications from prospective producers such as Tweed, with about 30 new applications arriving each week.

“There’s no question that a marijuana industry has been created or is being created,” the CMA’s Simpson said.

Investors have poured millions into start-ups hoping to cash in on regulatory shift and subsequent birth of a market place.

“It’s Big Marijuana, I suppose,” Simpson said.

Health Canada said the old regime “was open to serious abuse and had unintended consequences for public health, safety and security” – notably small growers becoming targets for theft and perhaps violence from those looking to sell cannabis illegally.

Commercial growers also say their plants are grown in sanitary environments free of moulds and other contaminants that could have adverse health effects.

Still, Simpson holds deep reservations about the “literally hundreds of other compounds” that accompany the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) that produces marijuana’s high when smoked.

“It’s been completely downloaded on physicians, so we’re essentially taking responsibility for the outcome,” he said.

“I think physicians need to be very wary about prescribing it, and in fact, most physicians – me included — will not be.”

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