Doctors see more harm than good in legal pot: national survey

Medical marijuana is shown with its packaging label in Toronto. More Canadian physicians oppose legalizing recreational pot than support it, according to a nationwide survey. Graeme Roy / THE CANADIAN PRESS

More Canadian physicians oppose legalizing recreational pot than support it, suggests a nationwide survey.

The poll of 235 general practitioners conducted by MD Analytics in June states 47 per cent of respondents disapprove of the move, which takes effect Oct. 17, while 32 embrace it — a result that’s consistent throughout the provinces, said the company.

For those in opposition, 87 per cent say they expect to see more patients showing psychotic symptoms, and 88 per cent believe they’ll be treating more people for substance abuse.

But those on the other side say legalization should mean a decline in prescriptions or patient visits to treat some of the same mental symptoms, as well as chronic pain, fibromyalgia and insomnia.

The survey exposes concerns of the unknown and of the legislation’s possible deeper effects, said Rahim Shah of MD Analytics.

“There’s concerns over misuse and psychotic effects, more of the longer-term impacts,” he said.

Polarization in the survey highlights the need for more education and research into the effects and medical benefits of marijuana, said Dr. Lydia Hatcher, a chronic pain and psychotherapy specialist at McMaster University Hospital in Hamilton, Ont.

“Physicians have had so little education on cannabis so it doesn’t surprise me in the least,” said Hatcher, who’s been prescribing cannabis oils containing non-psychoactive CBD since 2015.

“They don’t know what to expect, while those of us who have been prescribing have a better take.”

Two-thirds of her patients who’ve used cannabis medicinally have either experienced dramatic benefits or some improvement, said Hatcher, adding the lengthy duration of many of those results tend to rule out a placebo effect.

But Hatcher did say fears over increased dependence or abuse have some merit, a concern that exists with any substance.

And marijuana’s widespread use and a history going back centuries, she said, shows “it’s a relatively safe drug.”

Earlier this year, a Statistics Canada survey showed 14 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and over had consumed marijuana in the previous three months — a number that climbs to 17 per cent in Alberta.

The poll is the latest indication of the medical community’s unease over the end of recreational marijuana prohibition.

The Canadian Medical Association says many of its members are in favour of phasing out marijuana’s medicinal use, largely because its recreational legalization means greater access will make prescribing it moot.

“We believe that a separate regulatory framework for medical use is no longer necessary, and look forward to working with the federal government to eliminate this framework as soon as possible,” the CMA said in a statement released earlier this year.

In the MD Analytics poll, Canadian doctors also believe “the legalization of recreational cannabis may lead to some patient populations substituting their prescribed medications with recreational cannabis,” states the survey’s report.

Medical professionals are already seeing that in Alberta as tolerance toward cannabis grows, and it’s cause for concern, said Dr. Chris Wilkes, a Calgary child and adolescent psychiatrist.

“We’re already seeing an increase in emergency room (visits) for that reason,” he said.

Wilkes said he’s also concerned about polls showing substantial numbers of Canadians say they’ll begin using marijuana after it’s fully legalized, adding he agrees with doctors who fear an increase in those suffering mental-health side-effects such as psychosis.

“It’s not an innocuous drug,” he said, noting the divisions in the MD Analytics poll.

“It’s polarizing — we’re very concerned doctors are supportive of making it more available.”

Wilkes does say cannabis has a role in treating nausea in cancer patients and in relieving symptoms of MS and rheumatoid arthritis, and could be useful as an alternative for alcoholics suffering liver damage.

“But it has some very serious consequences — it’s not a wonder drug,” he said.

“Legalization is not being driven by doctors, it’s being driven by big business.”

Its medicinal side shouldn’t be submerged by more general use, said Wilkes, which should be as tightly regulated as possible with strict bans on advertising.

Meanwhile, MD Analytic’s Shah also said the simple fact legalization’s effects are still a mystery is borne out by the poll’s majority uncertainty over areas such as its safety, quality, effectiveness and out-of-pocket costs.

Physician Hatcher said that’s a key finding.

“They’re unsure . . . it all leads to the need to educate,” she said.

The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus six percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

On Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn


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