Illustration by Genevieve Pizzale Image by: Getty Images
While recreational cannabis use in Canada is just being legalized, Canadians have used the plant for medical reasons for a little while. Here, two pros explain to us what it treats and how to use it.
Canada is about to legalize the use of recreational cannabis, but you may not know the reasons why someone might imbibe from a medical standpoint. From determining whether you have an ailment that medical cannabis can treat to understanding how to get a prescription, we’ve compiled all the details of medical cannabis in Canada with help from Dr. Paula Williams of the Toronto-based Apollo Cannabis Clinic and Amanda Daley the vice president at Spectrum Cannabis a Canadian medical cannabis company.
The medical cannabis conversation
The discussion of the uses of cannabis is an ongoing and often controversial one, but for many Canadians, it’s been a go-to therapy for a number of ailments and disorders. Canada’s history of medical cannabis goes back to 2000 when the Supreme Court mandated it. Patients seeking this form of medical therapy were given even more access in 2014 when it was decreed that any physician or nurse practitioner (depending on the province) could provide a patient access to medical cannabis. While there is plenty of evidence in favour of treating with medical cannabis, Daley notes that research and studies have been on much smaller scales, partly because of the legality and accessibility of cannabis for research. Expect that to change with the legalization of recreational use in late 2018. However, a study done in January 2017 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that there is evidence to support that cannabis can be used to successfully treat a range of ailments and disorders.
How does cannabis work?
“Medical cannabis contains hundreds of plant chemicals, however, THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) are the most important,” says Dr. Williams. Daley adds, “Our bodies have an endocannabinoid system, which is in charge of a lot of our bodily functions, such as our sleep cycles, regulation of appetite and emotional state.” The body has natural receptors for cannabis-like compounds, which means that, if we’re suffering or deficient in one function, the cannabis will gravitate towards those receptors and help reduce the symptoms we’re experiencing, whether that’s pain or a sleep disorder.
What can cannabis treat?
Cannabis is not considered what Daley refers to as a “first-line therapy,” which means that according to Health Canada, “healthcare practitioners are encouraged to try other classes first.” However, research has shown that it can have benefits in treating common issues such as sleep disorders, some anxiety-related issues and chronic pain. “Most patients want a prescription for medical cannabis to treat pain, like migraines, back pain, arthritis and fibromyalgia and often wish to reduce their use of pain medications and have fewer side effects from their treatments,” says Dr. Williams. Daley notes that 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from chronic pain of some kind, so it’s no surprise that many Canadians are looking to alternative or natural remedies to manage it, as they move away from pain medications that have notable or troubling negative side effects. The National Academies study in 2017 concluded that there is substantial evidence to support the use of cannabis in the treatment of chronic pain in adults, chemotherapy-induced nausea in cancer patients and even spasticity symptoms in multiple sclerosis patients.
How to use medical marijuana
Both Daley and Williams agree that there are multiple methods of using cannabis, once a proper medical document is acquired for the treatment, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. The stigma of cannabis use is often centered on smoking, however, Williams mentions that smoking is never recommended to her patients. The most commonly available cannabis options available are vaporizing the dried cannabis flowers or buds (a safer alternative to smoking), using cannabis oil or ingesting cannabis soft-gels or capsules. However, the choice to use one over the other often comes down to personal preference or what it’s intended to treat.
“With vaporizing or inhalation, the onset of effects are generally within minutes, but the duration is typically around one or two hours,” says Daley. “If you’re ingesting soft gels or cannabis oil, for example, the onset of effects can be one to three hours, but the duration of symptom control can be six to eight hours.” She adds that, “If this is somebody, for example, who needs help with sleep, the soft gels have a duration of effects that last six to eight hours, which conveniently is what is recommended for a good night’s sleep,” however if the patient is looking to mitigate a migraine or menstrual or back pain, vaporizing might offer quicker relief.
What’s next for cannabis treatments?
The research for medical cannabis is ongoing—and expected to ramp up as the use of recreational weed is legalized—but there are some ongoing studies that are showing the benefits of medical cannabis and its effects on patients with Tourette syndrome and dementia or Alzheimer’s. With the industry shifting and cannabis becoming more readily accessible, the studies are becoming more substantial and the list of treatable ailments longer.