When Health Canada announced it was changing the laws governing how medical marijuana is produced and dispensed, the goal was a good one: Increase access to pot for those who legitimately need it to ease suffering from pain.
However, the new rules, which go into effect on April 1, are threatening to have the exact opposite effect. That's because the vast majority of doctors – the medical professionals responsible for authorizing the use of medical marijuana – are extremely wary. In failing to take their concerns seriously, Health Canada risks reducing access to medical marijuana rather than expanding it.
Doctors' concerns around their new role are entirely understandable. Only 7 per cent of all physicians and 14 per cent of family doctors support active authorizations to possess medicinal cannabis, according to Health Canada's own figures. Many believe that they cannot prescribe a substance that has not undergone the same rigorous clinical trials and approvals process as pharmaceuticals. Scientific studies of the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana "are not conclusive," according to Health Canada's own website, and the agency "is not aware of any clinical research on this subject." Can we blame doctors for being nervous?
They also worry there is insufficient oversight of how the prescriptions are actually filled. Under the old law, Health Canada issued "authorizations" for the use of medical marijuana after receiving detailed forms signed by a doctor, which specified the medical conditions and specific symptoms their patient suffered from. The new forms doctors will fill out offer no such information. The patient simply takes the signed form, sends it in to a commercial pot producer and receives their marijuana in the mail. Doctors have no way of verifying the strength or strain of the marijuana. It's the equivalent of prescribing aspirin, and rolling the dice on whether the dispensed bottle contains baby Aspirin or Tylenol Extra Strength.
Even if pot were decriminalized, these concerns would still exist. Marijuana's medical effects – the conditions it can treat, appropriate doses, interactions with other drugs and side effects – need to be better understood if doctors are expected to prescribe it as medicine. Doctors are right to question the new rules. If Health Canada is going to give them the responsibility of prescribing pot, it should at least attempt to address their concerns in a meaningful way.