Medicine Hat senior says process to get medical marijuana too complicated

After trying pharmaceutical prescriptions, Judith Brooke, 75, was recommended medical marijuana by her doctor for her extreme back pain. But Brooke says she was given little guidance and found the process to procure cannabis complicated.

'I didn't know what to look for,' says Judith Brooke of her attempts to procure cannabis

Judith Brooke's doctor recommended she try medical marijuana for her sciatica. But she was given little guidance on what she needed or the best way to find it. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Medicine Hat senior Judith Brooke had never touched marijuana in her entire life — before last month.

The 75-year-old suffers from a severe case of sciatica. The pain in her lower back was so bad, it made her immobile for months.

Brooke says she tried pharmaceutical drugs Oxycontin and Percocet first, but had allergic reactions to both.

Then, in December, her family doctor authorized marijuana for medical use.

"I was aware of the illegal stuff and that's the way I related cannabis. And so when the doctor suggested that I take medical cannabis, I thought, 'oh, well, I'm into the natural way anyway'. So, to me, medical cannabis is much more natural than Percocet," said Brooke

However, she says the next steps were extremely frustrating.

She was referred to a list of licensed growers on the Health Canada website. It was up to her to find the right product with very little information to go on.

'I didn't know what to look for'

"When I'm faced with going on the internet to the grower's website and I'm looking at all these pictures with these strange names on them, with these percentages on the bottom, I thought, I'm looking at a biology sheet, how am I supposed to decide," Brooke said.

"I couldn't even distinguish between the leaf product, the flower and the oil. I didn't know what to look for."

Kelly Eby, spokeswoman for the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, says physicians are not required to authorize marijuana for medical purposes, but can choose to do so.

"Many physicians are not well trained in the pros and cons and many don't believe there's enough evidence, so it is their choice whether they wish to prescribe that particular substance," Eby said.

Natural Health Services, the largest prescriber of marijuana in Western Canada, specializes in medical cannabis.

Still a lot to learn

The director of patient care, Kait Shane, says there is still a lot to learn, starting with the medical field.

"A lot of medical professionals are still dealing with the bias that they have been embedded with, basically, for generations now. But definitely we're trying to get everybody together and on the same page," Shane said.

Natural Health Services has offices in Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Medicine Hat, where Brooke is now a patient.

It has educational services and community outreach programs, but only at its Calgary location. Out-of-town patients can access them online and by phone, but the company hopes to set up more to smaller centres this year.

Brooke hopes that happens sooner rather than later. 

She managed to find a dosage that works for her sciatica, but has already run out. Now she has to start all over again.

She says the way the system works is discouraging, especially to seniors.

"The message to the other people who are not motivated to do research, or can't, then it tells them that this is not the way to go. And yet it could help them considerably."