Feds, prov­ince pass pot buck


Lor­raine Fay of Lon­don wants to avoid be­com­ing the lat­est vic­tim of an opi­oid cri­sis that’s sweep­ing across Canada and leav­ing a trail of ad­dicts and corpses.

But her ef­forts have been stymied by a health care sys­tem that in­sures the cost of opi­oids for those on dis­abil­ity, but not an al­ter­na­tive — med­i­cal mar­i­juana — that some doc­tors say is far safer and more ef­fec­tive.

“Our gov­ern­ment is fight­ing this opi­oid cri­sis, so why not fund med­i­cal mar­i­juana?” Fay said. She’s hardly alone. Doc­tors who are lead­ers pre­scrib­ing med­i­cal mar­i­juana in Lon­don and Thun­der Bay say they’re in­un­dated with pa­tients who want to get off opi­oids, but can’t af­ford to buy med­i­cal mar­i­juana that in Lon­don costs about $10 a gram.

“This is what I talk about ev­ery day with pa­tients. I’ll prob­a­bly have this con­ver­sa­tion 10 times to­day,” Dr. Michael Hart said.

A fam­ily doc­tor who grad­u­ated from West­ern Uni­ver­sity in 2012, Hart says he sees at least 3,000 pa­tients at his of­fice near Rich­mond Row, Ready To Go Clinic. “Many of my pa­tients tell me they want to try med­i­cal cannabis, but they can’t af­ford it.”

On­tario, like other prov­inces, pays for opi­oids for peo­ple on dis­abil­ity as­sis­tance, de­spite the drugs’ toll of death and ad­dic­tion.

In Lon­don, opi­oids kill dozens each year and lead to so many over­doses, the city has Canada’s third-high­est rate of hos­pi­tal­iza­tion for opi­oid emer­gen­cies.

But de­spite a death toll that’s led to dec­la­ra­tions of opi­oid crises across Canada, when asked why gov­ern­ments don’t help pa­tients pay for med­i­cal mar­i­juana, the On­tario and fed­eral gov­ern­ments, both of them Lib­eral, ap­peared to pass the buck to one an­other.

Asked why On­tario’s health in­sur­ance plan doesn’t cover the costs of med­i­cal mar­i­juana that some stud­ies show is more ef­fec­tive and safer than opi­oids, a spokesper­son for Health Min­is­ter Eric Hoskins said the prov­ince lacks au­thor­ity to cover the cost be­cause med­i­cal mar­i­juana hasn’t been ap­proved by Health Canada un­der the Food and Drugs Act.

Told of Hoskins’ po­si­tion, Health Canada pointed to reg­u­la­tions passed 13 months ago that ex­empted med­i­cal mar­i­juana and cannabis from the Food and Drugs Act.

Hoskins’ spokesper­son then tossed the ball of re­spon­si­bil­ity back to the feds, writ­ing in an email that the ex­emp­tion only meant that providers of med­i­cal mar­i­juana could ob­tain li­cences from Health Canada.

“The fact re­mains that med­i­cal cannabis has not been re­viewed by Health Canada’s Ther­a­peu­tic Prod­ucts Direc­torate for safety and ef­fi­cacy, which is a nec­es­sary step of the drug cov­er­age ap­proval process,” Hoskins’ spokesper­son wrote.

A spokesper­son for Health Canada said the agency would need more time to re­spond to ques­tions asked by in­clud­ing:

• Is there a na­tional com­mon drug re­view process un­der­way for med­i­cal mar­i­juana? • Can a re­view only be trig­gered by an ap­pli­ca­tion from a drug man­u­fac­turer, and if that’s true, does that leave those who need med­i­cal mar­i­juana in the cold, since no sin­gle com­pany pro­duces enough of that drug jus­tify the costs of seek­ing a re­view? • In Au­gust 2016, fol­low­ing a rul­ing by the Fed­eral Court of Canada, Health Canada promised “rea­son­able ac­cess” to med­i­cal cannabis. Is ac­cess rea­son­able when so many Cana­di­ans can’t af­ford to buy it?

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