Despite new federal legislation making it easier for patients to grow marijuana at home, some medical specialists aren't so sure that's a good idea.
Dr. Doug Smith, a Fredericton specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation, says while he's been prescribing marijuana for almost a decade and seen "quite a few remarkable stories of it being a life-changer," patients who grow their own cannabis might have less control over what they're getting.
Previously, patients looking to grow medical marijuana or get someone else to grow it for them could only get seeds and plants from Health Canada.
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Under the new Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes regulations, patients can get seeds and plants from any producers licensed by Health Canada. As of this month, there are 34 licensed producers in Canada.
"The therapeutic effects of marijuana can be quite variable depending on the strain, whether it's indica, sativa or hybrid," says Smith.
Indica strains of marijuana produce a sleepy, relaxed effect, while sativa strains produce a more energizing, caffeine-like buzz.
Despite the variable effects, Smith says cannabis is still safer than many, more traditional pain treatments.
Since no lethal dose of cannabis has even been scientifically determined, one of the benefits of the plant versus opiates, says Smith, is that "a patient can't kill themselves with an overdose."
More research needed
Other doctors say the variability of cannabis presents challenges to physicians.
Dr. Jeff Blackmer, vice president of Medical Professionalism with the Canadian Medical Medical Association, says "it's a legal, medical, and ethical requirement to make sure that the patient understands what is being prescribed, and a lot of doctors struggle with the fact that they don't have all the answers."
"Even though a lot of patients say they've benefited from this, it's hard to know on a case-by-case basis which patients will," says Blackmer.
Under the new rules, patients now have three choices when it comes to getting medical pot: register with licensed producers, grow their own with clearance from Health Canada or designate someone else to grow it for them.
The new rules also include more specific guidelines for labelling and testing of cannabis projects.
Patients urged to do homework
Part of the reason different types of cannabis aren't adequately understood, says Smith, is the "stigma surrounding cannabis — and it's going to take time for attitudes to change."
Smith encourages patients to do their homework.
"I find that the patients who have studied cannabis and have an understanding of the endogenous cannabinoid system are the ones that are able to make the best use of the product," he said.