Lacking any clear direction from Ottawa, the Arthritis Society has put together a diverse group that includes medical cannabis researchers, patient advocates, marijuana producers and bureaucrats to identify research priorities for the drug and create prescription guidelines for doctors.
The national charity gathered a cannabis roundtable in Vancouver on Thursday for two days of discussions. It plans to produce a report in the new year, identifying areas where more research could benefit patients, while answering important questions from doctors – such as appropriate dosage levels, how cannabis should be administered and which patients could benefit the most.
"People have been able to access this [drug legally] for 15 years and there is a vacuum in terms of the knowledge – we now need to catch up," said Joanne Simons, the chief mission officer at the Arthritis Society. "We've taken the step and are hoping that other people will join us, and we'll just create a much better body of evidence than we've had over the past 15 years."
Last year, Health Canada overhauled its system of small licensed home growers supplying themselves and other patients in favour of commercial-scale producers that mail the drug directly to prescription holders.
The Canadian Medical Association has criticized the new regime because doctors have been forced to assess what type of treatment their patient needs and prescribe set dosages, while they only had to verify that a patient claimed the drug helped them under the old system.
Meanwhile, a dearth of clinical evidence on the efficacy of the plant's touted benefits means many physicians simply don't know enough about cannabis to recommend it to patients, while Health Canada has not approved cannabis as a medicine.
"The Ministry of Health has to understand that we have a gap right now and how can we work together as a community to ensure that the physicians across country are getting access to the validation of research that they need," said Ms. Simons, whose organization states there are more than 4.6 million Canadians living with the condition.
The society first recognized pot's potential benefits when it found two-thirds of the patients registered under the old medical marijuana regime were listed as suffering from arthritis, Ms. Simons said. The charity now works with several large growers licensed under the new federal system and has found that about half of their patients complain of arthritis, she added.
The federal Liberal government has promised to legalize marijuana, though it has yet to say what that system will look like or whether it will impact the medical pot system.
Jonathan Zaid, head of the patient advocacy group Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana, said the push for legalization of recreational pot sales promised by the Liberals should not overshadow the need for more research to help the drug's medicinal users. "Patients could be forgotten," he said.
A Health Canada representative that spoke to attendees at a closed-door seminar Thursday was unavailable for comment, but a representative in Ottawa pointed to the guide the department published for doctors last year.
Over the past year, amid underwhelming growth in their patient bases, Canada's two dozen licensed producers have ramped up their efforts to explain the benefits of their drug to doctors, through offering continuing education courses and presenting at medical conferences. Growers Aphria, Emerald Health Botanicals, MedReleaf, The Peace Naturals Project and Tilray helped sponsor this week's event.
In June, the CMA's then-president said he was very concerned about this outreach, which he characterized as "quite slanted." Ms. Simons said these commercial growers are only stepping in because "there is a vacuum and somebody needs to be educating GPs [about medical cannabis]."
"Obviously they're driving an agenda and they obviously have a business model that they're focusing on," she said. "[But] if they're providing the right information that is credible, then they're playing a role that no one else is currently."
Charles Webb, president of B.C.'s medical association, praised the Arthritis Society for holding the conference and said hopefully the Liberal government "will hear the requests coming from this conference and others and will take action."