Fund medic­i­nal pot? Uh-uh

The Beacon Herald - - LOCAL NEWS - JONATHAN SHER POST­MEDIA NEWS NEWS By the num­bers: opi­oids

LON­DON — 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 third­high­est 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 The Free Press, 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 one in seven: The ra­tio of On­tar­i­ans who used an opi­oid in 2016. Four in five: Ra­tio of opi­oid that are

ac­ci­den­tal

Num­ber of opi­oid deaths in Canada in 2015, nearly dou­ble the death toll from ve­hi­cle col­li­sions and a four-fold in­crease since 1991

In­crease in use of fen­tanyl, a pow­er­ful opi­oid painkiller, since 2006

734: 548 per cent: 975 per cent:

In­crease in use of heroin since 2006 In­crease in use of hy­dro­mor­phone since 2006

232 per cent: Source: On­tario Drug Pol­icy Re­search Net­work

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?

While bu­reau­crats jockey over who’s re­spon­si­ble for not cov­er­ing the costs of med­i­cal mar­i­juana, count­less Cana­di­ans are ex­posed to the risks of opi­oids, and many in Thun­der Bay have sought out the help of Dr. Shelley Turner, a fam­ily doc­tor from Man­i­toba who has spe­cial­ized in help­ing ad­dicts dur­ing a ca­reer she be­gan as a vol­un­teer paramedic and con­tin­ued as a nurse be­fore grad­u­at­ing from med­i­cal school at McMaster Univer­sity in Hamil­ton.

“I’m get­ting 10 to 15 new re­fer­rals a week,” she said.

For many, med­i­cal cannabis has turned their lives around, she said, with one pa­tient able to wean them­selves off not only opi­oids but most of the 14 medicines he’d used to con­trol pain and sleep at night. In 14 months he lost 60 pounds and the need for all but three med­i­ca­tions – Tylenol 3, cannabis oil and cannabis va­por. “This guy is think­ing about (fi­nally) re­turn­ing to the work­force. This is not un­com­mon,” Turner said. Lon­don Free Press

DEREK RUTTAN/POST­MEDIA

Dr. Michael Hart at the Ready To Go Clinic in Lon­don. Many of his pa­tients want to try med­i­cal mar­i­juana.

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