Pubdate: Thu, 04 Feb 2016
Source: Georgia Straight, The (CN BC)
Copyright: 2016 The Georgia Straight
Author: Travis Lupick


The Canadian government legalized medical marijuana more than a 
decade ago. However, Kamloops physician Ian Mitchell told the 
Straight that patients still come to him with basic questions and 
often have no idea where they can find advice about cannabis.

"I send them to dispensaries, just because there is nowhere else to 
go," he said in a telephone interview.

Mitchell explained that the former Conservative government's 
mail-order system prevents patients from meeting face to face with 
experts employed by licensed producers. Meanwhile, the vast majority 
of medical doctors don't know enough about marijuana's medical 
applications to provide informed opinions.

Storefront dispensaries have filled the gap, Mitchell said. But he 
and other advocates for medical marijuana are warning that Ottawa's 
plan to legalize recreational cannabis risks elbowing experts 
associated with the dispensaries out of conversations about reform.

Last month, for example, B.C.'s health minister, Terry Lake, came out 
in favour of liquor stores selling recreational marijuana. His 
remarks followed similar statements by the premiers of Ontario and 
Manitoba, among others.

Mitchell said that has patients worried they're about to lose their 
friendly neighbourhood dispensary. "People always ask me, 'What's 
going to happen to the medical side of things now that the 
recreational stuff is going through?' " he said.

Ottawa hasn't responded to provincial politicians' suggestions that 
liquor stores should be selling pot. But a 2013 Liberal Party of 
Canada draft policy paper provides some hints about how legalization 
could impact the industry's medical side.

"The regulations exempting medical use of marijuana are only 
necessary because of the current law," it reads. "With the end of 
prohibition, there will be no need for this legal exemption-which has 
proven difficult to manage for many patients, doctors, designated 
growers, municipal authorities and law enforcement personnel."

Hilary Black is a cofounder of one of Vancouver's oldest 
dispensaries, the B.C. Compassion Club Society. She told the Straight 
that what the country stands to lose is more than two decades' worth 
of expertise that has quietly accumulated in storefronts like hers.

"It would be a real travesty," she said via phone. "It's not 
appropriate to send a patient into a liquor store to go and procure 
their medicine."

Black emphasized that legalizing recreational marijuana while 
simultaneously developing its medical applications will require 
attention to areas beyond the question of access.

"I definitely think that we need a two-track system, because the 
needs are very, very different for a recreational user and a medical 
cannabis patient," she said.

Health Canada declined to grant an interview.

Adolfo Gonzalez is a consultant for a number of Vancouver 
dispensaries and a former research coordinator for Eden Medicinal 
Society. He expressed the same concerns as Black. But Gonzalez also 
emphasized ways that legalizing recreational marijuana could mean a 
boost for its medical applications.

Legalization will involve removing cannabis from Schedule Two of the 
Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, he noted, and that will make it 
significantly easier for researchers to access and use cannabis in 
trials involving human patients.

"In order to get a [scientific] publication's approval, you've had to 
be super delicate about how you structure your study, and it has not 
been easy," Gonzalez said. "My big hope is, if they deschedule, it 
will open the door to all sorts of studies."

Canadians are slowly warming to the federal mail-order system.

During the second quarter of 2014 (the first three months following 
its implementation), licensed producers together sold 408 kilograms 
of medical marijuana. That increased to 1,371 kilograms one year 
later and went up to 1,873 during the third quarter of 2015, the 
latest period for which data is available.

One of the country's largest licensed producers is Nanaimo-based 
Tilray. The company's CEO, Greg Engel, said if Canada is going to 
take marijuana as medicine seriously, doctors must-and will, he 
argued-remain involved.

"In the early days, absolutely, there was a stigma," he said. "But 
there is a shift happening. Physicians are becoming much more open to 
prescribing medical cannabis....And we are seeing more patients going 
to talk to their physicians about it."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom