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Physicians’ reluctance has more to do with the bureaucratic reach of Health Canada

By Hempology | March 26, 2008

Sat, 22 Mar 2008
Cowichan News Leader (CN BC)


Since the current incarnation of Canada’s medical marijuana program was established, doctors have been forced by Health Canada to act as sentinels for a product whose complexities, methods of delivery and side effects they have little firsthand information.

It’s a situation that leaves many physicians hesitant to sign their names to the documents required for patients to access government pot.

“Our No.  1 complaint is that patients can’t find a doctor who will endorse their MMAD application,” says Eric Nash of Duncan’s Island Harvest.

However, physicians’ reluctance often has more to do with the bureaucratic reach of Health Canada than it does with their own personal misgivings about prescribing a drug that remains in legal limbo.

The Canadian Medical Association is slowly coming around to recognizing the valuable role medical cannabis can play in helping users achieve a higher quality of life.

But as recently as 2003 then-CMA president Dana Hanson said, “physicians should not be the gatekeeper for a substance for which we do not have adequate scientific proof of safety or efficacy.”

Observers say the CMA’s regularly parroted line rings hollow when general practitioners regularly prescribe drugs with little more knowledge than what they were told by representatives of the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture them.

The Canadian Medical Protective Association, the organization that insures 95 per cent of Canada’s physicians, continues to issue its doctors a release from liability form that protects them from legal action relating to a clients’ use of medical marijuana.

No such special form is required when prescribing addictive and dangerous drugs like Valium and codeine.

South of the border-where the “war on drugs” drags on-the 124,000-member American College of Physicians released a January 2008 position paper that supports comprehensive research into the therapeutic uses of medical marijuana.

It concludes: “Evidence not only supports the use of medical marijuana in certain conditions but also suggests numerous indications for cannabinoids.  Additional research is needed to further clarify the therapeutic value of cannabinoids and determine optimal routes of administration.”

In Canada, new government research on the therapeutic value of medical marijuana will be a long time coming given the Harper government’s cancellation of the $4-million Medical Marijuana Research Program in 2006.

The continuing prohibitionist view of the product by Health Canada and its political masters necessitates a need to micromanage distribution of the drug.  It is this overt control that makes doctors wary of becoming entangled in the bureaucracy that accompanies the MMAR.

During the past few years, Health Canada has taken to phoning doctors directly to question attempts to prescribe more than five daily grams to a patient.

Physicians and patients alike see this as a gross invasion of their privacy.  It seems Health Canada may also be awakening to that fact.

In a March 2007 correspondence obtained by Canadians for Safe Access through an ATI request, MMAD division program manager Barry Jones tells MMAD manager Ronald Denault: “I also feel that we may be going more into the realm of influencing, rather than informing the renewals.”

In a 2007 letter to Jason Wilcox, Denault writes, “The use of dried marijuana for medical purposes has not yet been proven scientifically.”

For chronically and terminally sick Canadians, the country’s physicians are not so ill-informed as to overlook the benefits their patients derive from medical cannabis and often will endorse compassion club applications.

“Doctors would rather sign a form for a quasi-legal, grey market source like a compassion club, than get involved with Health Canada,” says Vancouver Island Compassion Society’s Philippe Lucas.

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