Calgary

Medical marijuana cost is huge issue, even as access improves, Calgary patients say

Another medical marijuana clinic will be opening its doors in Calgary next week - but as access to this type of treatment becomes easier, some say the high cost of medication is a major problem.

New clinics aim to help patients navigate medical and legal system

Lift Resource Centre will operate out of Imagine Health Pharmacy in downtown Calgary. (Mario de Ciccio/CBC)

Another medical marijuana clinic will be opening its doors in Calgary next week — but as access to this type of treatment becomes easier, some say the high cost of medication is a major problem.

"Currently it's on a case-by-case basis that certain patients may be covered," says Pradyum Sekar, one of the founders of the new medical marijuana clinic, the Lift Resource Centre.

Pradyum Sekar is one of the founders of Lift Resource Centre, which is opening two new locations in Calgary. (Mario de Ciccio/CBC)

Sekar says cost is often a factor cited by patients.

Calgary resident Shelley Thiemann turned to pot in desperation last year to deal with epileptic seizures.

"The neurologist actually sat me down and said, 'There's nothing else I can do for you' … Am I just supposed to wait to have a seizure and die? The last one almost killed me."

The seizures aren't gone, but they're much less frequent. And Thiemann says the cannabis doesn't leave her feeling heavily sedated, like the drugs did.

Shelley Thiemann says she has no doubt medical marijuana has saved her life. (Mario de Ciccio/CBC)

But the relief comes at a cost of $900 per month — more than half her disability income of $1,600.

"You're choosing between life and food. And why should I have to make that choice?"

Thiemann notes that while her traditional epilepsy drugs were covered by her employer's health insurance plan, her medical marijuana is not, because it doesn't have a Health Canada-assigned drug identification number (DIN).

As it stands, most insurance companies don't routinely cover medical marijuana. But some insurers say they will consider making an exception if the employer has specifically requested it for one of its employees.

Sekar says insurance companies need more proof that medical marijuana works — something the industry is working towards.

In the meantime, patients are often left struggling to cover costs, and also figure out the precise strains and dosage that will treat their condition. 

"We find that most of our patients are in the room for up to an hour or more asking questions. For a lot of them, it's their first time and they need to understand how the medication's going to work for them."

The clinic, which opens on Monday, charges patients a $95 annual membership to pay for one-on-one counselling with a qualified nurse.

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