Medical marijuana: Should it be sold in pharmacies?

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This year will bring a Canada Day for the history books. Only July 1, 2018, recreational marijuana (also called cannabis) will be legalized and regulated in Canada. The federal Cannabis Act creates a legal framework for producing, possessing and selling marijuana across Canada, meaning that each Canadian province will set its own rules to oversee its distribution, subject to federal government conditions. Provincial and federal governments will share in the responsibility for the oversight of this new system, and will also share in the tax revenue. Different provinces are taking different approaches, similar to how alcohol purchases vary between jurisdictions. This trend follows what we’re seeing at the state level in the United States, with different states moving to decriminalize recreational use.

Marijuana has been legal to some extent in Canada (and in many US states) for some time, in the form of “medical” marijuana. The Canadian government authorized the sale of marijuana for that purpose, while it simultaneously emphasizes that cannabis is not an approved therapeutic product. The medical market, for many, appears to simply be a means to access products for recreational, or non-medical use, and has generated wildly unsubstantiated claims about the medical merits of marijuana for conditions like autism and the treatment of cancer. Dispensaries have appeared across Canada and the US, usually with very easy referrals for prescriptions. Some dispensaries ignore any prescription requirement entirely and will sell marijuana directly to the public without any medical assessment or advice. With the introduction of government-overseen (and in some Canadian provinces, government-delivered) retail sales in Canada later this year, it’s reasonable to assume that unregulated dispensaries will eventually disappear.

With recreational sales imminent in Canada (and already here, in states like California), there are questions about the future market for “medical” marijuana. Should use for medical purposes be treated like recreational use, where consumers make their own selections, and purchases are taxed like other consumer products? Or should some forms or uses of marijuana be treated like prescription drugs, where a health professional remains involved, and products may be even be covered by insurance plans? Given the major changes we are seeing in how we can access marijuana, it’s worth summarizing the current state of evidence for marijuana when used for specific medical purposes. With marijuana becoming much more accessible, physicians, other health professionals, and their patients need high-quality information about its value for different medical conditions. David Gorski reviewed much of the evidence in a series of posts over the past three years. Now, three new documents prepared for Canadian physicians and health professionals concisely summarize the current evidence base for medical marijuana. Continue reading