Medical marijuana still divides doctors, but Calgary patients swear by the drug
Alberta's medical licensing body keeps close watch as physicians prescribe a growing amount of cannabis
This story was originally published on Nov. 27.
This is Part 3 of 3 in a series.
As the Aurora Cannabis production facility near Cremona, Alta., pumps out 7,000 kilograms of medical marijuana a year, demand for the drug is strong an hour's drive away in Calgary.
The waiting room is full at Natural Health Services, a small clinic in a strip mall near the city's massive Chinook Centre shopping complex.
Calgarians looking to speak with a physician about medical marijuana are constantly coming and going.
Each consultation lasts about 15 minutes, enough time for the doctor to decide whether or not medical marijuana is recommended for the particular ailment a patient presents.
If so, a prescription is issued. If not, other lines of treatment are advised.
Four doctors work in the clinic. All are registered with the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Alberta and able to prescribe medical cannabis, under certain guidelines.
"They must meet regularly with the patient, they must have tried other alternatives to marijuana before they prescribe marijuana, and they need to check the pharmaceutical information network to ensure that the patient may not have contraindications with the marijuana," said Kelly Eby, a spokeswoman for the medical-licensing body.
Currently, Eby said 268 Alberta physicians have registered specifically to prescribe medical cannabis.
The college decided to create the special registry to help develop a "standard of practice" around therapeutic use of the drug — which remains controversial — and to ensure that physicians who do prescribe it know that the college is aware of how much they're prescribing and to whom.
"The physician community is split on marijuana in regards to the amount of evidence that there is available to prove that there is a good therapy," Eby said.
"One of the things that we would recommend is that there be more research on that topic before we can finalize our position on it."
Back at the clinic, patients with a prescription go down one floor to meet with a counsellor, who helps them figure out how to consume their medicine.
No marijuana is on site and cannabis is not bought or sold here.
But patients can purchase vaporizers — small heating devices used to turn the active ingredients of cannabis into a gaseous form that can be inhaled, without combusting the plant and creating smoke.
Patients also sit down with the counsellors to discuss different product options from different producers, but the relationship goes well beyond that, according to Kait Shane, the clinic's director of patient care.
Education is a "key" part of the process, she said.
"They want to be talked to and reassured that what they're doing is right. Basically, it is an education centre."
The counselling floor is as full of patients as the waiting room above. All kinds of people are here — young, old, women, men — looking to find relief for what ails them through cannabis.
Jill Grindle, a counsellor at the clinic, used marijuana for 20 years recreationally before discovering its therapeutic uses.
She found prescriptions for particular kinds of cannabis helped treat her insomnia, which had become debilitating.
"I just needed a specific type of cannabis that you don't choose, when you source on the street," she said.
"I now sleep nine hours a night. I've reduced my medication intake by seventy five per cent. I've lost fifty pounds. I've changed my career. I exercise daily. I'm eating better. I am just a more balanced individual."
Jan Cerato, a marketing professional, took pills for years to deal with his anxiety but then switched to cannabis in January.
It was the first time he tried marijuana — recreationally or otherwise — and immediately noticed a night-and-day difference compared to his previous medication.
He said cannabis addressed his anxiety without muting all his other feelings, as the pills had done.
"I didn't have any emotions. I wasn't happy. I wasn't sad. I was just like a bit of a drone," Cerato said of his previous pharmaceutical experience.
He said he now consumes about $35 worth of marijuana a day, which is something he never would have imagined a year ago.
"My friends and family, some of them still don't believe it, but it's working," he said.
Translated from French by Robson Fletcher. Photos by Julien Lecacheur & Jocelyn Boissonneault