Aversion to prescription marijuana could be causing Canadians harm

published on October 9, 2015

Vancouver, BC [October 9, 2015] In a commentary in the Canadian Journal of Public Health published on Friday, experts from the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) outline arguments in favour of prescription medical cannabis. The article points to the drug’s benefits for therapeutic pain relief and to relieve symptoms associated with HIV/AIDS, chemotherapy and other conditions.

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) has discouraged the prescribing of cannabis for lack of clinical evidence. However, this recommendation neglects the drug’s therapeutic role. Health Canada has put the onus for prescribing marijuana on physicians: requiring them to complete paperwork on a case-by-case basis to prove appropriate use of the drug for medicinal purposes.

“Given CMA et al’s failure to acknowledge various peer-reviewed and high-quality clinical research studies on the therapeutic application of cannabis, we feel this position is not entirely evidence-based,” write authors Stephanie Lake, Research Assistant at the BC-CfE; Dr. Thomas Kerr, Co-Director of the BC-CfE’s Urban Health Research Initiative; and Dr. Julio Montaner, Director of the BC-CfE.

The authors highlight cannabis is being held to more stringent standards than other pain-relieving drugs with potentially harmful effects. This includes opioids, which are being prescribed at rapidly increasing rates.

Five recent randomized control trials and two systemic reviews recorded neuropathic pain relief associated with cannabis treatment. In contrast, while marijuana is not associated with an elevated risk of mortality, prescription opioids directly contribute to over half of overdose deaths – exceeding deaths from motor vehicle accidents in North America.

A growing body of scientific evidence points to increasing rates of abuse, overdose and other complications from non-opioid drugs that are commonly used to treat neuropathic pain in conditions such as shingles, fibromyalgia and spinal chord injuries. These include gabapentin, an anti-epileptic medication used to treat nerve pain, and pregabalin, an anticonvulsant and neuropathic pain agent.

The authors caution that the applications of cannabis extend past medical to legal considerations. The failure to recognize the therapeutic benefits of marijuana will result in missed opportunities to improve health outcomes for the thousands of Canadians struggling with chronic pain and other issues.

“All the evidence considered, it seems that cannabis is being held to an entirely different standard than other commonly prescribed drugs,” said Dr. Thomas Kerr, Co-Director of the BC-CfE Urban Health Research Initiative. “It’s time to recognize its therapeutic value and remove barriers to access medicinal cannabis.”

“When it comes to prescription marijuana, patients’ needs should be considered above political considerations,” said Dr. Montaner, Director of the BC-CfE. “Federal legislators and medical bodies should take an impartial and scientific look at the potential uses of cannabis. There could potentially be great harm in ignoring the medical uses of marijuana.”

About the Urban Health Research Initiative
The Urban Health Research Initiative (UHRI) is an innovative research program of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS based on a network of studies developed to help identify and understand the many factors that affect the health of urban populations. Focusing primarily on issues relating to substance abuse, infectious diseases, the urban environment and homelessness, UHRI aims to improve the health of individuals and communities through research to inform policy. Founded in 2007, UHRI’s team consists of researchers, epidemiologists, statisticians, ethnographers, research assistants, research coordinators, registered nurses, knowledge translations coordinators, students, and support staff.

About the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS
The BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) is Canada’s largest HIV/AIDS research, treatment and education facility and is internationally recognized as an innovative world leader in combating HIV/AIDS and related diseases. BC-CfE is based at St. Paul’s Hospital, Providence Health Care, a teaching hospital of the University of British Columbia. The BC-CfE works in close collaboration with key provincial stakeholders, including government, health authorities, health care providers, academics from other institutions, and the community to decrease the health burden of HIV and AIDS. By developing, monitoring and disseminating comprehensive research and treatment programs for HIV and related illnesses, the BC-CfE helps improve the health of British Columbians.