Toronto

'I would rather use my vaporizer': Medical pot users say clinical proof could help fight stigma

While moving to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries in the city, Toronto Public Health acknowledges that there may be therapeutic benefits associated with cannabis. Still, some medical marijuana users and producers say there is a lack of definitive scientific evidence.

Some say pot helps treat everything from PTSD to multiple sclerosis, HIV-AIDS and even cancer

Mark Zekulin is president of Tweed Marijuana Inc., one of the big players in medical marijuana production. The Smith Falls, Ontario operation is one of the first licensed marijuana companies in Canada to go public. (CBC)

While moving to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries in the city, Toronto Public Health acknowledges that there may be therapeutic benefits associated with cannabis, such as help with pain relief, nausea and inflammation.

That acknowledgement comes in a report considered and endorsed by the Toronto Board of Health on Monday, which calls on the federal government to use a public health approach to regulating the drug. 

The claims around what marijuana can specifically treat, and even cure are broad, ranging from anxiety to PTSD to Multiple Sclerosis, HIV-AIDS, glaucoma, even cancer. Still, the problem when it comes to how it's being used and accessed, say researchers and medical marijuana producers, is a relatively low volume of definitive clinical research.

Terry Remaine uses cannabis to relieve muscle spasms caused by Multiple Sclerosis instead of the pharmaceuticals. But she got the same excuse when she first tried to get a prescription for marijuana.

"I'm seen by an M.S. clinic, but they will not prescribe [pot] because they say it hasn't been clinically trialed," she says. "They can give me medication, but I would rather use my [marijuana] vaporizer. The medication makes me drowsy."

Riley McGee, a former soldier living in Edmonton, served in Afghanistan and uses marijuana to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He's with Marijuana For Trauma Inc., a company that seeks to provide veterans with access to medical marijuana.

"What it really helps me with is it levels my mood and it helps me focus, with PTSD can be a bit of an emotional roller coaster. You can get angry or agitated quickly," he says.

He says more scientific studies on the effectiveness of cannabis could counter value judgements, biases and stigma.

However, giving pot to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder directly contradicts the military's stance on the issue. The Canadian Forces has said there's not enough proof to authorize marijuana as a treatment for PTSD and that some evidence suggests it could be harmful.

And the Canadian Medical Association has not endorsed the prescribing of medical cannabis for therapeutic purposes due to lack of evidence related to the drug's efficacy, harms, and mechanism of action.

While there is anecdotal evidence cannabis can be effective for chronic pain management, there are very few large long-term studies to back up claims, say researchers.

'Green rush'

"Humans have never had a panacea in terms of something that will cure such a wide range of conditions as has been claimed," says M-J Milloy, an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia, who researches how Canadians are using cannabis as medicine.

But he says there are a number of promising small studies that show that marijuana could be a substitute for opioids, treat cancer, even shrink inflammation caused by HIV-AIDS and a broad range of other conditions.

"What we need now is human studies to really determine the effectiveness of cannabis for these conditions," he says.

In the midst of a "green rush" as investors look to get into the marijuana industry — medical and otherwise — some say a portion of the money rolling in should be earmarked for research.

"Some of the funding should definitely come from industry and we are seeing that, along with government," says Pradyum Sekar, co-founder of Lift Resource Centre, which organizes the Cannabis Expo, a national marijuana industry trade show.

"But interested parties that would want to see cannabis having more clinical-based evidence should put more effort and resources into it."

A person was dressed up as a marijuana leaf at the Lift Cannabis Expo at the Metro Convention Centre in Toronto on the weekend. (CBC)

Tweed Marijuana Inc. is one of the big players in medical marijuana production. The Smith Falls, Ont., operation is one of the first licensed marijuana companies in Canada to go public.

Company president Mark Zekulin says they are committed to taking on a leadership role when it comes to research.

"This product has been prohibited for so long that there just hasn't been the basic research that we would all like, so we are funding clinical trials. We are funding research partnerships with universities."

He says the medical community is more used to dealing with big pharmaceutical companies.

"They are used to seeing a certain thing which is pharmaceutical pills. And this is different. And there is some evidence, but they want to see more. And it's incumbent on us to build that."

While he admits that soon people won't need a medical reason or a prescription to acquire cannabis,  even with full legalization around the bend, he says scientific evidence could dispel some of the ongoing skepticism people who use cannabis as medicine routinely face.

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