Last year, the federal government spent $5.2-million on medical marijuana for Canada's veterans. This year it will spend a lot more. Marijuana is a popular way to relieve the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and some veterans swear it saved their lives. Now consultation services designed to hook up vets with pot are spreading across the country. Marijuana for Trauma, founded by former Canadian Forces member Fabian Henry, has already helped hundreds of veterans in Atlantic Canada and is now expanding to Ontario. "I'm expecting thousands to be coming through the door in the coming years," he told the CBC.
Personally, I'm fine with veterans smoking pot. I'm fine with people smoking pot for whatever reason they want, including getting high. The properties of cannabis, while not entirely harmless, are widely known and clearly beneficial for many.
But is it medicine? No, it's not. And it's tremendously misleading to tell people that it is.
Millions of people have been led to believe that marijuana is good not only for stress and pain management, but for much more serious illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, childhood epilepsy, autism, Hepatitis C, Crohn's disease, Parkinson's, glaucoma, even cancer. Desperate families have even moved to states where marijuana is legal in hopes of finding life-saving treatment for their children. I have no doubt that marijuana can be useful for some people who are severely ill. But the hype has far outrun the evidence.
A comprehensive study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last month found that the medical claims for pot are mostly based on lousy evidence, anecdote, and wishful thinking. "There is some evidence to support the use of marijuana for nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy, specific pain syndromes, and spasticity from multiple sclerosis," the accompanying editorial said. For other conditions – including PTSD – the evidence is poor.
For a host of legal and other reasons, marijuana hasn't been rigorously tested on a large scale. But, the people who promote and sell the stuff can make any claims they want about it. To date, medical marijuana has been legalized in 23 states, as well as in Canada. Last month the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that medical marijuana should be available in any form, not just the smokable kind.
As medical use spreads, your friendly neighbourhood dealer is gradually being replaced by a doctor in a lab coat. The idea of cannabis as wonder drug is being vigorously promoted by the entrepreneurs who want to grow the industry, and see medical marijuana as the back door to full legalization. Here's Greg Engel, CEO of Tilray, one of Canada's more sophisticated medical pot growers: "The helping professions need to be open to alternative treatment options that have huge potential to radically transform the lives of patients suffering from a wide range of conditions … One day Canada will be known for medical cannabis just like hockey, maple syrup, and poutine."
That claim may be a touch inflated. It's worth nothing that real drugs are standardized, with standard doses and a limited number of uniform ingredients that are subject to strict quality control. Pot is none of these things. Even so, plenty of doctors are happy to authorize it for just about anything that ails you. Lower back pain? Check. Anxiety or stress? Check. Across the country, medical pot clinics have sprung up that will connect you to a legal pot supplier (sometimes for a fee from the supplier) with a minimum of fuss. These clinics would like you to bring a referral from your doctor – but if you don't have one, they'll work around it.
The charade of medical marijuana is just one part of Canada's absurd and incoherent policy mess. Vancouver has nearly a hundred illegal drug dispensaries operating openly, which it has nonetheless decided to regulate. The police (who are under municipal jurisdiction) have openly said that busting the pot shops is a low priority, and the federal government can't make them enforce the law. Now the Supreme Court has authorized the sale of marijuana cookies, a move that has driven the federal government to fits of apoplexy. Marijuana cookies might need regulation too, but by whom, or how, is a bit of a poser.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of us will soon be getting our medical marijuana approvals – not because it's medicine, but because we'd rather be on the right side of the law. Marijuana shouldn't need to prove itself as medicine to be legal. It should be legal because it's relatively harmless, and a lot of people like it.