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With recreational cannabis winning the lion’s share of attention with cannabis legalization in Canada, the medical cannabis program faces an uncertain future. But it could still thrive, thanks to health care plans and older Canadians.

One worry is that “medical cannabis users will be forgotten about,” says Paul Lewin, Ontario regional director of NORML Canada. “There will be a focus on recreational cannabis but medical users have some complex issues that need sorting out, from dosage amounts to other medications that could interact with cannabis.”

Lewin adds that users of the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR) have long faced a challenge that could get more frustrating as emphasis shifts to recreational cannabis: “So many doctors frequently know nothing about cannabis,” he says. “And pharmacists aren’t much help. That means medical cannabis patients are getting less assistance with their medication than any other type of patient in Canada.”1 

That knowledge gap spurned the Canadian Medical Association to make a bold statement earlier this year: Doctors in Canada would like to see the medical cannabis system phased out once legalization takes over Canada, according to CMA vice-president Dr. Jeff Blackmer.

He went on to tell CBC: “And [that is] primarily because of the lack of evidence, the lack of scientific studies showing it actually works, the lack of knowledge around dosing and interactions with other medications — all these types of things. Our recommendation was that once it is legalized, that there really is no reason for a separate medical system.”

He added that after legalization, he doesn’t see a reason for people to access it through their doctor.

"If anyone can go down to the local dispensary and get cannabis, there's really no need for a separate medical authorization system. You really don't need to have people going to their doctors because anyone who has a medical condition and thinks they might benefit from it can go ahead and try it," he said.2

Lewin thinks such an idea is absurd and instead would like to see cannabis education throughout medical schools and medical training programs across Canada.

Others posit that medical cannabis’ future in Canada could thrive via employee health-care plans.

Instead of chasing individual medical patients, licensed producers, such as Starseed, want to partner with health-plan sponsors — unions and other large employers — to get preferential access to wide swaths of potential customers who have cannabis covered by their insurance plans.

The Financial Post notes such a strategy “could allow it to lock up relationships with large groups of well-insured consumers, potentially insulating it from a migration of medical patients into the recreational market.”3

Even without delving into the health-plan market, some LPs are confident that medical cannabis will remain a viable health treatment.

“Unless I’ve misinterpreted thousands of pieces of feedback from our patients on its benefits, medical cannabis is here to stay,” says Vic Neufeld, CEO of Leamington, ON-based Aphria, which has supplied medical cannabis to approximately 50,000 registered patients – including about 30,000 active users.4

Another factor that could spur the medical cannabis demographic is Canada’s aging population. The combination of Canadians living longer with the population swell of the baby boom generation means seniors will represent 25 percent of the Canadian population by roughly mid-century, compared to less than 15 percent in 2010.5

As their health-care needs rise with their age, these older Canadians may be more interested in opting for the medical cannabis program, much like they would prefer prescription medication over off-the-shelf pills.

Will health-care plans and older patients keep the medical cannabis program sustained coast-to-coast? Stay tuned to find out.

  1. Via interview conducted September 24, 2018
  2. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/canadian-medical-association-cannabis-legalization-1.4772000
  3. https://business.financialpost.com/cannabis/future-of-medical-weed-is-all-about-insurance-says-union-backed-cannabis-company
  4. https://aphria.ca/blog/the-future-of-medical-cannabis-in-canada-feels-good/
  5. https://www.fraserinstitute.org/article/canada-must-prepare-for-our-aging-population

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