Backlash After Canadian Medical Association Calls to End Canada’s Medical Marijuana Program

Published on August 22, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
A stock photo of some Medical Marijuana Buds.

The Canadian Medical Association has sparked a feud with medical cannabis advocates across the country—including many of the organization’s own members—by proposing that Canada’s existing medical marijuana program be scrapped once recreational cannabis becomes legal.

The CMA is proposing that Canada’s existing medical marijuana program be scrapped once recreational cannabis becomes legal.

The CMA, a national, voluntary association of physicians, believes there shouldn’t be a separate regulatory framework for medical cannabis once recreational cannabis is available, and it’s calling on Ottawa to endorse a single regulatory system for both.

The organization says there isn’t enough scientific evidence backing up claims that cannabis has therapeutic value, and it says individuals interested in using it for medical purposes should get it at dispensaries that sell it for recreational use.

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Dr. Jeff Blackmer, vice-president of medical professionalism with the CMA, ignited a firestorm in April, when he articulated this position at a conference organized by the Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids, a non-profit that promotes research on medical cannabis.

Several physicians in the audience stood up and took Blackmer to task. One demanded to know if Blackmer believed a child with epilepsy should seek cannabis at a dispensary. Another physician announced that she was ashamed of the organization.

One physician demanded to know if the CMA believed a child with epilepsy should seek cannabis at a dispensary.

Blackmer was booed and soon left the conference. He then took to Twitter, bemoaning what he described as a “lost opportunity for an important conversation.” He also said he was “embarrassed and ashamed” for the physicians behind the “name calling, personal attacks, jeering and booing.”

Unbowed, Blackmer reiterated the CMA’s position to CBC Calgary in early August. “If anyone can go down to the local dispensary and get cannabis, there’s really no need for a separate medical authorization system,” Blackmer told the CBC. “You really don’t need to have people going to their doctors because anyone who has a medical condition and thinks they might benefit from it can go ahead and try it.”

He said there is nothing stopping individuals from asking their doctors for input.

Widespread Blowback

Blackmer’s comments have outraged many physicians and other cannabis advocates.

“I feel his statements are unfortunate and I wholeheartedly disagree,” Dr. Christopher Blue, a doctor in Windsor, Ontario who prescribes medical cannabis, told Leafly. “As clinicians, we’re seeing a shift in medicine in that patients are now pursuing alternative and adjuvant treatments” for conventional diseases and for their overall health and well-being.

“A single system for both medical and non-medical cannabis would erode the ability of health care providers to ensure patients receive adequate supply and proper dosages.”

“By refusing to accept cannabis as a form of medical treatment [the CMA] would continue to separate patients even further from their medical doctors as they seek out newer, alternative, natural remedies.”

Dr. Vahid Salimpour, a cannabis specialist at Apollo Cannabis Clinics in Ontario, told Leafly that the current medical regulatory system provides discounts for patients who are living off social assistance or disability pay—a benefit that would likely disappear if the medical system were eliminated.

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Salimpour also said that, if the medical framework were eliminated, the government would likely stop covering the cost of cannabis for military veterans who suffer from PTSD and other disorders—which would “create a huge barrier to their continued recovery and wellness.”

“A single system for both medical and non-medical cannabis would erode the ability of health care providers to ensure patients receive adequate supply and proper dosages,” added Jonathan Zaid, director of advocacy and corporate social responsibility for Aurora, a Calgary-based licensed producer.

Eliminating the medical cannabis system wouldn’t eliminate the use of medical cannabis, he said. “It would simply push patients away from speaking with their doctor about its use.”Energized & Focused or Chill & Giggly?

Patient, Heal Thyself?

What does Zaid think about Blackmer’s suggestion that individuals hoping to treat medical conditions buy it at dispensaries that sell recreational cannabis?

Seeking medical guidance from a dispensary budtender would be “no different than pursuing cognitive behavioural therapy from a local bartender—no offence to bartenders.”

“I find it deeply concerning that a medical doctor, let alone a doctor speaking for many of the 13,000 providers who already prescribe cannabis, can have such a narrow and misguided view of a treatment that has widely reported success in managing patients’ symptoms,” he told Leafly.

In his view, Blackmer’s comments are “not only ignorant of the patient and healthcare provider experience, they also encourage self-diagnosis, self-medication, and experimentation by limiting physician oversight.”

Dr. Blue is equally critical of Blackmer’s suggestion. Seeking guidance from a dispensary budtender, he said, would be “no different than pursuing cognitive behavioural therapy and counseling from a local bartender—no offence to bartenders — rather than a clinician who is experienced and clinically trained in treating such conditions.”

“I never thought I’d see the day when doctors would be asking for them to be less involved in a patient’s health than more, and suggesting patients self-medicate rather than consult with their doctors,” James O’Hara, president and CEO of Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana (CFAMM), told Leafly.  “It’s not only astonishing, it’s disheartening to say the very least.”

Stigma Stifles Scientific Research

Many cannabis advocates also take issue with Blackmer citing a lack of scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of medical cannabis.

Dr. Blue, for one, noted that there has been continued growth in scientific studies that prove its therapeutic value—some of which indicate cannabis is sometimes more effective than conventional treatment—and added that the abundance of clinical evidence should not be discounted.

He and other advocates are confident there would be even more scientific evidence that cannabis has therapeutic value if not for the stigma surrounding it.

Dr. Salimpour told Leafly that the “demonization” of cannabis has prevented more studies from being undertaken. He said he would like to see more research on dosing, strain selection, and interactions.

The consensus among cannabis advocates in the medical community and beyond is that Blackmer and the organization he represents, the CMA, are on the wrong side of history.

Said Blue: “It’s my opinion that it would be a disservice to patients to continue to stick one’s head in the sand and ignore the benefits of cannabis rather than educate oneself and work towards integrating cannabinoid medicine into conventional medicine.”

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Randi Druzin
Randi Druzin
Randi Druzin is an author and journalist in Toronto. She has worked at several major media outlets, including the National Post and the CBC, and has written for dozens of publications, such as The New York Times, Time magazine, ESPN The Magazine, and The Globe and Mail.
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