Canada authorized the use of medical cannabis in 2001, long before it became legal for adult use. But more than two decades later, there are still many misconceptions and questions about it.
First, patients should know medical cannabis isn’t regulated the same way prescription medications are. In most cases, you can’t just walk into your family doctor or go to a pharmacy. But you can self-refer to a doctor who specializes in medical cannabis and register with as many mail-order providers as you need (free of charge).
Since cannabis retail stores are plentiful, some patients don’t feel the need to see a doctor for their cannabinoid treatments. However, there are many advantages to using cannabis prescribed by a healthcare practitioner who is knowledgeable about its therapeutic uses.
Here are some benefits to a medical cannabis authorization:
- Physician guidance: When you’re prescribed cannabis, your treatment plan is tailor-made for you, taking into account your health issues, current medications, and level of comfort with cannabis. That takes the guesswork out of choosing the right dose, strain, or product.
- Workplace protections: A growing number of workplace insurance providers are covering medical cannabis used to treat conditions ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to multiple sclerosis and cancer.
- Tax deductions: Cannabis purchased through a licensed provider can be claimed as a medical expense on personal taxes. The provider must be on a Health Canada-approved list of medical practitioners.
- Higher possession limits: The limit for buying and possessing recreational cannabis outside your home is 30 grams, but the law is different for prescribed cannabis. Because it’s considered a medicine, you’re allowed to possess 30 times your daily prescription limit or 150 grams, whichever is less.
- Personal protections: Many people who use cannabis for a medical purpose related to a disability are legally protected from discriminatory treatment in employment, housing, services and other areas. (Those who seek accommodation related to cannabis use because of a disability are often required to provide medical or other information to support their case.)
- Compassionate pricing: People who are living on disability or are receiving aid from government subsidy programs are often eligible for compassionate pricing—which is a discount on producers’ cannabis products. Discounts commonly range from 10% to 30%.
If you are using cannabis to treat certain conditions or side effects, it is wise to consult with a doctor who understands cannabinoid treatment, as well as any interactions with prescription medications. The majority of medical cannabis patients in this country started their journey at an authorized clinic.
Interested? If so, see the answers to some common questions:
Where do I start?
Contact one of the many specialty clinics that act as middlemen between doctors, patients and licensed producers. These clinics set up consultations with physicians who assess candidates for medical cannabis suitability then write prescriptions (i.e. medical documents) for those who are suitable.
These clinics also educate patients on how to use cannabis and register them with licensed producers, who then send the cannabis by mail. A patient can register with more than one licensed producer at a time but a separate medical document is required for each one.
How do I know if a clinic is legitimate?
Ashleigh Brown, CEO of SheCann, and a well-known medical cannabis patient and advocate, urges consumers to be mindful of the fact that licensed producers sell cannabis to patients who have prescriptions from authorized healthcare providers. Alarm bells should sound in your head if a clinic can’t help you get medical cannabis directly from a licensed producer.
Also, “if a place is promoting a product and promising to send it to you, it’s not a legitimate clinic,” Brown says. “Clinics aren’t allowed to send or sell cannabis.”
In short, a place that will sell you cannabis directly is not a clinic. It’s a dispensary.
Things a medical cannabis clinic should never do
1. Push patients to choose certain brands or products
2. Require urine tests
3. Charge to renew your authorization or change providers between renewals
4. Limit the number of providers you can choose
5. Cap how much THC you can use (without cause)
6. Revoke your medical document for purchasing cannabis from a retail store
7. Force you to share medical information with non-healthcare personnel at the clinic
How do I choose a producer?
Many clinics will recommend one or more producers but the patient has the final say. “It’s often hard to decide,” concedes Brown, who takes cannabis to treat epilepsy. “If you’re unsure which producer would best meet your needs, get several medical documents then do some research. I’ve had as many as nine of those documents at one time.”
What is the most important thing to know about becoming a medical cannabis patient?
“Access to medical cannabis is easier than ever,” says Brown. “Patients have a lot of choice in how to proceed with treatment — through authorized cannabis clinics or individual healthcare providers — so they should educate themselves about their options and their rights.
“It’s not hard but it’s important,” she says. “What matters most is that you get an experienced doctor or nurse practitioner who will give you a detailed treatment plan with product suggestions.”
Here are just a few reputable medical cannabis clinics:
Winnipeg-based Ekosi specializes in delivering personalized cannabis therapies for a wide range of medical conditions. It operates in Ontario and Manitoba and is run by Dr. Shelley Turner, a primary care physician who is considered a trailblazer in the use of medical cannabis for addiction, sleep and mood disorders and chronic pain.
Harvest Medicine is a network of specialty medical cannabis clinics. The Calgary-based company provides in-person services in four locations in Alberta and the Maritimes and through a telemedicine platform called HMED Connect.
Santé Cannabis offers frontline services to patients in four locations in Quebec and through telemedicine. The company, which is based in Montreal, is recognized for offering clinical development and research services.
Located in St. Albert, the Herb Clinic (THC) provides a variety of services in the Alberta market, including cannabis prescriptions, education and data collection. It has created a community platform for patients and also provides services to those who grow their own cannabis, legally, at home.