Medical marijuana advocates say the number of patients using medical cannabis will continue to grow even when the drug becomes legal for recreational use.
The federal government has said it intends to see recreational pot use legalized by July 1, and Saskatchewan announced earlier this week that it will be sold in 60 licensed stores across the province.
But medical cannabis is already prescribed to thousands of people across Canada to treat everything from pain to disorders like Crohn's disease.
While many patients wanting to take cannabis to treat ailments might soon turn to storefronts to buy the drug, the market for medical marijuana isn't going to end, according to one advocate.
"Certainly there is going to be a huge market for recreational but I think people who are specifically trying to deal with ailments want somebody who they can confide in and trust," said Kait Shane, director of community outreach with Natural Health Services, which offers cannabis prescriptions and operates clinics in several cities, including Saskatoon.
Shane said even as patients buy cannabis from stores without prescriptions, she hopes legalization will go a long way to legitimizing the drug — especially in provinces like Saskatchewan with a shortage of doctors willing to write cannabis prescriptions.
"The people will go wherever they need to go, but ideally more doctors will recognize that it's a valid form of treatment and yes, it's a respectable form of treatment."
More people may self-medicate
Bryan Salte, the associate registrar and legal counsel for the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan, said doctors will have to wait and see whether or not more people turn to self-medicating once the drug is legalized.
"My guess would be that fewer patients are going to going to seek prescriptions for marijuana if they can access it themselves on their own terms and based on their on conclusions," Salte said.
He said there are no concrete numbers to rely on to prove that, and that the college is sill waiting on Health Canada to provide accurate data on how many doctors are currently prescribing the drug in this province.
But, Salte said, legal cannabis will be treated by the college the same way alcohol is. The only real difference is there is a now a policy in Saskatchewan for doctors who think it would be an effective treatment.
"We similarly don't take a position on what individuals ought to do if they are accessing cannabis for recreational purposes or self-diagnosing and administering marijuana themselves without the involvement of a physicians," he said.
Insurance, taxes still on the table
But the pending legal market does raise some thorny issues for medical users.
Medical marijuana patients have already raised flags about the province's suggestion of a "zero-tolerance" policy for driving under the influence of marijuana. Some have argued if they need to use the drug daily to fight a disease, they should still be allowed to drive.
There are other issues as well. Will there be a different tax model for people with a medical prescription versus people who want to simply use the drug recreationally?
In that case, Salte says, people will likely want prescriptions if that means they can get pot cheaper.
Shane says she knows there are advocates fighting extra taxes on medical cannabis and she envisions a day not too far away when medical cannabis is covered by insurance company drug plans.
"That's another great reason for people to want to stay in the medicinal field, beyond the consultations with specialized doctors," she said.
She said the problem for insurance companies is that medical marijuana doesn't have a drug identification number — a classification that requires going through the rigorous, expensive approval process required of all new drugs.
She says some companies' health spending accounts will already cover some of the costs associated with cannabis treatments.