VANCOUVER — The Canadian Medical Association and the federal government apply a far more rigid standard to prescribing marijuana than other drugs, resulting in negative — or even deadly — consequences, say experts from the B.C. Centre for Excellent in HIV/AIDS.
Medical marijuana is held to a different standard than other prescription drugs despite research suggesting it has therapeutic benefits, say three experts from the centre in a commentary published Friday in the Journal of the Canadian Public Health Association.
"When it comes to prescription marijuana, patients' needs should be considered above political considerations," Dr. Julio Montaner, one of the authors, said in a news release. "There could be great harm in ignoring the medical uses of marijuana."
The government and the CMA are being overly cautious, co-author Dr. Thomas Kerr said in an interview.
"This is just not how we deliver medical care and why we're doing it in the case of cannabis is beyond me," he said.
Several recent studies have shown prescription cannabis can have therapeutic benefits, but the CMA and others have failed to acknowledge the research, resulting in a position that isn't based on evidence, Kerr's commentary said.
Other studies have shown prescribing cannabis may lead to a reduction in overdoses and deaths associated with prescription opioid.
"This can't be taken too lightly because Canada, like the U.S., is in the midst of an epidemic of prescription opioid abuse and related overdose deaths," Kerr said.
While marijuana is not associated with an elevated risk of mortality, prescription opioids contribute to nearly half of all overdose deaths — a leading cause of accident related mortality, the article points out.
Under Canada's current medical marijuana laws, patients must obtain prescription cannabis from federally licensed producers, generally through the mail. There are currently 26 licensed producers listed on Health Canada's website.
The idea of sending prescription drugs through the mail is odd, Kerr said.
"We would never do that in the case of treating someone with diabetes," he said. "Really, people should have access to experts who can counsel them on appropriate dosing, potential side effects and their management and who can also provide other options and clinical followup."
The caution towards cannabis comes because it is illegal and because the federal government "has been making up the science on the fly," Kerr said, pointing to the example of Stephen Harper saying that marijuana is "infinitely worse" than tobacco.
"It's unfortunate that the federal government has really failed to deliver an effective medical-cannabis program and it's unfortunate that they've also misrepresented the science in this area," he said.
Kerr said government and other interested agencies should consider implementing a system where cannabis is legalized, and both medical and recreational use are regulated using evidence-based discussions and approaches.
Kerr is co-director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS's Urban Health Research Initiative. His co-authors are Montaner, director of the centre, and Stephanie Lake, a research assistant at the centre.
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