12/07/2012 12:08 EST | Updated 02/06/2013 05:12 EST

Proposed Medical Marijuana Changes Have Doctors On Edge


The federal government is expected to unveil its new regulations for the medical marijuana program in the next few weeks and the expected changes have some doctors and other stakeholders worried.

Health Canada took the unusual step of releasing its proposals months ago. It then held a series of pre-consultations during which thousands of people responded.

One proposed change would streamline the process by which a person can receive medical marijuana, but it has doctors worried it puts too much onus on the physician.

Right now, family physicians give the okay for a patient to use medical marijuana and Health Canada approves the final application.

Under the new system, doctors would simply write a prescription and the patient would send that to a commercial grower.

"The buck stops completely with the physician now," said Anna Reid, president of the Canadian Medical Association and an emergency room doctor.

Reid said the problem is that while doctors have a lot of information on prescription drugs, most have very little information on the benefits and effects of marijuana.

"Physicians don't know what they're prescribing. They don't know actually what is in that marijuana. They don't know what dose they're supposed to prescribe," Reid told CBC News.

NDP health critic Libby Davies is asking Health Canada to work with physicians, to give them the research and information they need to prescribe marijuana. But Davies said this change is good for patients.

"We had so many complaints and cases of people who were tied up in bureaucratic tape. So I think that's a good step."

But Davies is also urging the government to find a role for so-called "compassion clubs" across the country, which many people are already going to for help in getting access to the drug.

Concern over costs, but also safety

Paul Lewin, Ontario regional director for Norml, an organization that lobbies for people's right to use marijuana, agrees with the need to provide more research.

But he's worried about a proposal to replace individual licensed marijuana growers with larger commerical operations, which he fears could drive the price up.

"Cannabis can be expensive and if you're using it medicinally you may be using a lot in a day. And these are sick people who are probably of modest means," Lewin said.

The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs has been lobbying the goverment to make this change.

Stephen Gamble, president of the national organization, said people's homes are not designed to sustain grow operations and many individual growers make changes to wiring, for example, that are not done to fire codes.

That poses a fire hazard and a threat to firefighters when they have to enter a home being used as a grow op.

"One of the firefighters in our own community ... got electrocuted. And we had to transfer him to the hospital," said Gamble, who is a fire chief in Langley, B.C.

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