October 10, 2018 7:00 am
Updated: October 10, 2018 8:04 pm

Cannabis legalization means ‘new reality’ for Canadian health care: doctors

WATCH ABOVE: In Part 2 of Global News' special Cannabis IQ series, Su-Ling Goh looks at the potential impact the legalization of marijuana may have on our health-care system.

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As of legalization day, Oct. 17, more Canadians than ever will be using cannabis. What will that mean for our health-care system?

Experts say our closest comparison is Colorado. When the U.S. state legalized recreational cannabis in 2014, it saw a 23 per cent increase in pot-related emergency room visits. The spike lasted a few months. Most patients were diagnosed with mental illness, some with uncontrollable vomiting or injuries.

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READ MORE: Four myths and misconceptions about pot and your health

The Canadian Medical Association is urging the government to closely monitor issues in Canadian hospitals.

“We know with legalization, it normalizes use,” CMA president Dr. Gigi Osler said. “We are entering this new reality.”

For Canadians who choose pot, the CMA endorses Canada’s Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines, which include using a vaporizer, avoiding deep inhalation and choosing low-THC products. (THC is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis.)

Pregnant Canadians or those with a history of mental health issues are advised to stay away from cannabis.

The CMA recommends Canadians talk to their doctor about pot use. But at least one doctor says family physicians don’t know enough about cannabis to offer advice.

“The safety studies are that marijuana is actually safer than alcohol in overuse, so hopefully we won’t see overdoses,” said Dr. Allan McDonald of St. Albert, Alta.

“But there’s always concern about how much is too much.”

READ MORE: Expert at Alberta symposium concerned about cannabis’ effects on memory, language, mood

McDonald gets several questions a day about cannabis, from patients as young as 15. Many have done their research online and want prescriptions. He said aside from studies on seizures, there isn’t enough scientific evidence of any medicinal benefits of cannabis.

“I can’t prescribe alcohol, I can’t prescribe trips to Hawaii, and so I don’t prescribe marijuana,” McDonald said.

“(I’m) not saying it doesn’t make people feel better, but it’s not a medication.”

That’s an attitude Tony Mackiewich has encountered a number of times.

“It actually took about a year and three months to actually see the cannabis doctor,” the 43-year-old said.

Mackiewich, of Edmonton, had surgery for a ruptured disc in 2015, and has had chronic pain ever since. He says he couldn’t function on opioids, but finding a doctor who would refer him to a cannabis clinic wasn’t easy. Then the clinic had a backlog of patients before him.

READ MORE: Medical cannabis users worried about access to derivatives if dispensaries are closed

Wait times are shorter now, with the proliferation of specialized clinics. But Mackiewich hopes now that cannabis-curious people can soon buy their pot, patients like him won’t have to suffer as long.

“(Medical cannabis) reduces (my) pain up to 40 per cent,” Mackiewich said. “So it actually helps quite a bit.”

In Colorado, medical cannabis sales have dropped since 2014. The recreational market continues to grow.

Alberta Health Services said it has seen a small increase in the number of emergency department or urgent care centre visits related to cannabis-use. The following stats were provided to Global News by AHS:

In 2015, 421 adult Albertans were admitted to an ED or UCC, compared to 478 in 2016 and 619 in 2017.

The latest 2018 data records are from January to the end of August. To date, AHS has seen 502 adults admitted to an ED or UCC.

The impact on EDs is not substantial, according the AHS. The numbers are small compared to overall ED visits (about .04 per cent of total ED/UCC visits).

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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