health | 08.16.2018

Canada’s Can-Do Attitude Shapes Medical Cannabis Policy

Adrian Daniel Schramm


Canada recently legalized cannabis for adult use, becoming only the second country in the world to pass full legalization policy. That doesn’t mean, however, that the discussion (and nuances, both tangible and abstract) of use, especially for medical purposes, is over and done with – quite the contrary, actually: Many contend that the conversation has only just begun.

Canada’s framework for medical cannabis use and application looks much different than that of the adult side (which comes into effect officially on October 17 of this year) and offers a model for markets still debating the legalization, and/or the expansion of, existing programs.

Let’s take a look.

2001: A Cannabis Odyssey

Medicinal cannabis has been legal in Canada (with specific limitations and conditions) since 2001 – and interest has steadily increased since then. Nearly 300,000 Canadians have registered to purchase medical cannabis from licensed producers, which is about 20x as many as there were in 2014.

Canada’s fairly broad ACMPR (Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations) currently includes patients who suffer from chronic pain, mood disorders, PTSD, symptoms associated with cancer and chemotherapy (especially useful for those with a suppressed appetite), and other specific conditions.

As interest spreads, clinical research supporting the notion that cannabis as a viable treatment option for patients who haven’t found relief in traditional medicine, has followed suit.

Health is a priority in Canada. 200 cannabinoid-based natural health products are currently authorized for sale nationally. Many of these products are hemp-based, and, by requirement, contain less than 10 parts per million of THC. As the Cannabis Act legalizing adult marijuana becomes a reality this fall, the conversation will of course shift to general use; natural health products will be allowed to contain certain parts of the cannabis plant. However, they still will not be allowed any more than 10 ppm of THC.

Health Canada, the governmental department in charge of overseeing the nation’s general health, still has reservations about (over)use: An official warning that cannabis in any form can pose a number of health risks still pervades, and pregnant and breastfeeding women specifically have been advised to avoid cannabis so that no harm comes to a fetus or newborn. The general consensus is still that that the chemical components found in cannabis can affect brain function, including attention, memory and learning, and can have damaging neurological effects, especially in still-developing young people.

Health Canada oversees the “licensing and overseeing the commercial industry” and “registering individuals to produce a limited amount of cannabis for their own medical purposes (or to have another individual produce it for them).”

But the cannabis future is coming

Of course, legalization for adult use will change this conversation, at least in daily practice. As access to cannabis becomes available to all, the role of the doctor or practitioner will ostensibly be diluted by self-medication and the growing role of budtenders. This doesn’t mean, however, that research and due diligence becomes unnecessary, or that the need for those who specialize in treatment to be consulted before use for medical purposes is diminished.

When it comes to adult use (for leisure, in social situations, etc), a budtender is a great resource, and often the first point of contact for new users. But when treating ailments, disorders, and diseases – or simply the symptoms thereof – a medical professional is still recommended.

Though there are reasons to think of adult legalization as an overall positive for medical use as well: As Canadians will be exposed to cannabis on a grand scale, its presence will become normalized, the stigma associated with “illegal drugs” will fade, and the opportunity for new research will broaden, and doctors will better be able to utilize literature and resources that support cannabis as a medicine, rather than be limited by a the lack of available clinical research.

While adult use will certainly dominate the market in Canada, the country is nevertheless expected to see continued, even accelerated, growth of the patient-base after legalization as well (for the aforementioned reasons; reduced stigmatization, better research, etc.). Subsequently, there will also be an increase in tools to aid in transition. Software, like Sail Cannabis, for example, will help manage the challenges that many physicians face when dosing and prescribing cannabis, streamlining the process of medical cannabis use from the doctor’s office and beyond, and ensuring that cannabis offers the benefits and treatment it was meant to since the very first push for legalization.

Canada provides a model that, perhaps someday soon, might provide the framework necessary for best-practice implementation and legalization in the United States and beyond.

Sources and further reading:

Continue the conversation by reading this CNU article next: A State-By-State Look at Legal Cannabis in the United States