Medical Cannabis Prescription Vs. Self-medication Debate

One of the most common questions that cannabis physicians have heard since the Canadian government announced the legalization of medical recreational cannabis in October of this year is: If cannabis is going to be legal anyway, why do I need a prescription?

There are numerous benefits to medical cannabis that self-medication simply does not provide for a patient. Though legalization of recreational cannabis does allow cannabis to be readily available in places like Shoppers Drug Mart, many experts agree that the number of patients using medical cannabis will continue to grow even after October 17th.

This is due to a variety of reasons; one of them being that having a medical license allows patients to specifically target a condition they may be suffering with for a long time. They can use the plant in a medically sound way, with the advice and direction of a physician, instead of medicating themselves with cannabis.

Doctors can help with dosing medical cannabis

With self-medication, patients usually are unaware of the potential side effects cannabis can have. For example, a patient with anxiety who self-medicates with cannabis can be unaware that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can exacerbate anxiety in patients. They may be unaware that cannabidiol (CBD) may be the better strain to use when combating anxiety with cannabis. Physicians can help these patients navigate the way to best use the strain so that it can be even more effective in treatment.

In the above case, a physician can cap this patient’s THC percentage so that they won’t overmedicate.  If the physician determines that CBD is the cannabinoid that will benefit a patient’s condition, their prescription may prevent them from buying high-THC strains.

Having a medical prescription also allows patients to understand dosing in a therapeutic way. Many cannabis clinics have cannabis counselors on hand who can educate them on the different types of strains, terpenes, whether a strain is Indica or Sativa-dominant, and which strains would help benefit them for their specific medical needs. For example, a patient with insomnia may find that indica strains are more effective, while a patient with fatigue may find that Sativa strains work better. They also provide information regarding the legalities of cannabis usage; whether they can drive under the influence, whether they can travel with their medication, and any other contraindications with other drugs.

Recreational legalization allows for more acceptance of cannabis as a therapeutic drug with many organizations who previously did not back such a drug now fully endorsing it. Even medically speaking, this was a drug that was vilified for many years due to political reasons and now more and more physicians are recognizing its benefits in a multitude of conditions. But for those novice, elderly patients, they would need the support from a physician that medical cannabis allows.

Insurances may provide coverage

Experts also believe that medical cannabis has the potential to be cheaper than recreational cannabis. Insurance companies in Canada are starting to cover the drug as a medical expense, though we are still a long way from OHIP and other provincial coverage. It is, however, a start. Medical cannabis patients can also use their Health Spending Accounts (HSA) to pay for a part of the drug and devices like vaporizers.

The Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) also allows patients with medical cannabis prescriptions to file their cannabis costs as a medical expense as long as the patients save their receipts from a Health Canada approved Licensed Producer (LP).

LPs are federally mandated companies who produce and dispense cannabis and they also provide compassionate pricing to patients who are eligible. Another benefit of LPs is that they are inspected regularly by Health Canada to ensure that the retailer’s products meet health and safety standards. This can be safer than some dispensaries where regular inspection may not necessarily occur.

There have been some hiccups in the past, though, with LPs and contamination. But in most of these cases, Health Canada stepped in and many of these LPs accepted accountability for their actions.

Though we have only touched the tip of the iceberg with the many reasons why medical cannabis is necessary for patients with underlying conditions, many young patients still tend to self-medicate. As explained in the points above, having a physician to guide a patient through a medical drug is crucial for even more acceptance of cannabis.

One would not use hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ) to treat high blood pressure without a physician’s consult. So why should the same happen to cannabis?