A Windsor, Ont., doctor is urging his weed-wary colleagues to embrace marijuana as a bona fide pain treatment option because he is overwhelmed with patients seeking alternatives to addictive opioids.
Dr. Christopher Blue is also calling on governments and health-care insurers to ensure medical marijuana is covered under benefit programs because the cost will prevent potential patients from turning to it for pain management.
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Blue is one of a few local doctors prescribing medical marijuana — other doctors refer patients to him — and a waiting list that was once two weeks has now stretched to eight months.
"Unfortunately, patients are having to wait, but I can't do any more work," said Blue. "I'm physically tapped out."
Marijuana has 'minimal' risks
The volume of patients seeking marijuana for pain management has skyrocketed in the wake of the opioid epidemic — which has seen a spike in deaths and a crackdown on distribution. The result is that Blue's cancer patients must now wait longer for an appointment to get pain medication.
"Trying to triage that is very difficult and it's frustrating, not only for me but obviously for the patients," said Blue.
Dr. Amit Bagga, president of the Essex County Medical Society, agreed the risks associated with marijuana are "minimal" compared to those for addictive opioids. He acknowledged that only "a relatively small number" of local doctors are prescribing marijuana and believes those numbers will grow over time as they become more familiar with the drug.
"I certainly think that medical marijuana is new on the medical scene, so there is probably some information that has to be learned about it," said Bagga. "There has to be selecting the right patient for medical marijuana and probably with time we'll see an increasing number of people with that comfort level."
Blue understands why his colleagues are "gun shy" when it comes to prescribing marijuana. He believes health-care providers were misled by drug companies claiming opioids like OxyContin were not harmful.
"There's a fear amongst physicians, and rightfully so," said Blue. "Look what happened with OxyContin. It's now an epidemic."
There are few studies on the effectiveness of medical marijuana, but the available research shows cannabis can ease chronic neuropathic pain, including results from Montreal researchers published in 2010.
Their findings, which were published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, showed patient pain decreased with higher-potency marijuana.
Medical marijuana too expensive
Jennifer Butcher has been caught in the crossfire in the battle against opioids. The 46-year-old Windsor woman suffers from fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis. She has neck and back pain from a car accident when she was a teen and has difficulty standing for long periods of time.
She has been taking opioids for two decades but, after her physician retired, she could not find another doctor willing to prescribe opioids. She said she is willing to try marijuana for pain management but can't afford it.
"If you're on disability and you're on a limited budget and you have bills to pay, where are you supposed to come up with the money to buy it?" asked Butcher. "It's a miracle drug for a lot of reasons, but financially I can't afford it."
Blue agreed the lack of coverage is an obstacle for patients looking to kick opioids while still managing their pain. The harm from opioids is evident — there were 740 Ontario opioid-related deaths in 2015, a 99-per-cent jump from 2003 figures — and marijuana is less harmful. Blue said there are no known deaths from marijuana overdose in recorded history.
"It's a bit of a conundrum that government and insurance companies will cover this bad thing, which we know is causing harm, but they won't cover something else that is better," said Blue.
David Jensen, a spokesperson for Ontario's ministry of health, said medical marijuana is not covered by the Ontario Drug Benefit Plan because it "has not been approved by Health Canada as a therapeutic product under the Food and Drugs Act, nor has it been submitted or reviewed through Ontario's established public drug funding review process."