Doctors leaving it to marijuana dispensaries

Michael Joinson, head of the non-profit Always Growing Green Society, which operates a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Maple Ridge, demonstrates how to use drops to ingest cannabis. - Colleen Flanagan/THE NEWS
Michael Joinson, head of the non-profit Always Growing Green Society, which operates a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Maple Ridge, demonstrates how to use drops to ingest cannabis.
— image credit: Colleen Flanagan/THE NEWS

Doctors across Canada are reluctant to prescribe patients medicinal marijuana, but at Maple Ridge’s TAGGS Dispensary, the list of members coming to get the controversial herb for their ailments is closing in on 1,000.

Founder Michael Joinson said he had 989 members as of Wednesday, and at the rate people are joining his non-profit society, he expects to clear 1,000 by Christmas.

In an hour, four middle-aged men came through the door of the nondescript residence on 224th Street. Three went into a private room to obtain some of the many products available there, and the fourth signed up for the first time.

However, the Canadian Medical Association recently polled its doctors and found 35 per cent of physician respondents who had patients asking about access to marijuana said they never support such requests. Another 25 per cent reported they would “seldom” be willing to provide patient access to medical marijuana, while 40 per cent would do so at least some of the time.

The Always Growing Green Society started in December 2009 with a small membership. Joinson said the Maple Ridge dispensary is the only one of its kind outside of Vancouver. He added that his group deals exclusively with clients who have legitimate medical conditions. The society asks for a practitioner’s statement of diagnosis, and has potential members fill out an application form and code of conduct.

He said anecdotal evidence shows more local doctors are educating themselves about marijuana’s medicinal properties – sometimes at the request of potential TAGGS members.

“It is getting better,” he said. “Doctors didn’t want to do it.”

However, he added that “there are tons of people who can’t get their doctor to sign, because the physicians are scared of legal action.”

This, despite the fact it is a legal drug. Under Health Canada’s regulations there are 20,000 people across Canada who are authorized to possess dried marijuana for medical use. There are 2,700 licensed medicinal marijuana growers, who can provide for up to two patients.

According to the CMA survey, two thirds of physicians want Health Canada to offer liability protection for any increased “gatekeeper” responsibility around access to medical marijuana, and the same 66 per cent said they need specific training to fulfill this role.

Joinson and the staff at the dispensary aren’t in the practice of referring potential clients to pot-friendly doctors.

Rather, they tell prospective members to deal with their own family doctor and discuss cannabis as a potential treatment.

People suffering from arthritis pain, glaucoma, epilepsy, cancer and a variety of ailments may find cannabis helps them cope.

Doctors frequently cite the carcinogenic effects of smoking as a concern with prescribing marijuana to a patient. Joinson’s answer is vaporizers, which he maintains are a less harmful method.

TAGGS has a wide variety of other products. Joinson has found for his own back pain that eating cannabis works best. So he provides a variety or edible products – even cannabis on caramel ‘potcorn’ – for daytime pain. Sweet kane is for stomach problems, chocolate for anxiety and hyperactiveness, canna drops for all-day pain relief, Nanaimo bars for sleeping, hand cream for arthritis, eczema and psoriasis, and capsules for chronic pain.

Joinson is a wealth of knowledge about  the variety of marijuana strains and how they work in the body.

“This is not a dealer in a room, handing out bags,” he said.

Pot dispensaries started with the Compassion Club in Vancouver 15 years ago. There are now 22 such dispensaries in the Metro area.

“I didn’t invent this, I’m just bringing it out of Vancouver,” said Joinson. “We want it to be in every community.”

Joinson and the other staffers at TAGGS see a bitter irony in the reluctance of physicians to prescribe cannabis. Botched back surgery left Joinson in such chronic pain he was taking 600 to 700 mg of morphine every day. He used the powerful opiate for three to four years. He said he was virtually comatose.

“You sit and watch TV all day. My whole personality changed,” he said. “I was never high, high, but my head was fogged right out.”

When he was addicted, and needing kidney and liver tests, he slowly began to wean himself off, substituting marijuana.

He said other TAGGS members have had similar experiences with oxycontin, codeine and other prescription drugs with destructive side effects and addictive properties.

“Yet, I could go out and get a prescription for 400 morphine right now,” he said.

According to the CMA survey, doctors are not receiving a lot of requests for medicinal marijuana. Survey respondents indicated that for many of them (42 per cent), patients and their family members “seldom” ask about using medical marijuana. Almost a third (28 per cent) of respondents answered that they have “never” been asked, and 27 per cent reported they’re “sometimes” asked. Just four per cent reported being asked “often.”

When respondents were asked to provide multiple responses about the factors that would affect their decisions on medical marijuana for their patients, responses varied. The top three factors:

• concern that patients who request medical marijuana may actually want it for recreational purposes (64 per cent);

• insufficient information on the risks and benefits of marijuana when used for medical purposes (57per cent);

• insufficient information regarding the appropriate use of marijuana for medical purposes (56 per cent).

Some 85 per cent of survey respondents agreed that information on “potential risks and benefits of marijuana” would be useful or very useful, while 82 per cent indicated that information on “therapeutic indications for marijuana” would be useful or very useful. Another top information request (83 per cent) was for clinical guidelines to apply in specific conditions.

Commenting on which health professionals they felt should be authorized to approve marijuana for medicinal purposes, most respondents (80 per cent) indicated physicians should be authorized, while 30 per cent said nurse practitioners should be authorized to give such approval. Pharmacists ranked third in the list of preferences (14 per cent).

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