In December, after just three weeks in business, the Pacifico Life marijuana dispensary at 444 Bloor St. W. was shut down by the building’s landlord. It paid the price for operating outside the current federal law governing the sale of that drug. The government has promised changes to the law including decriminalization, regulation, and retail level access. Meanwhile, not too far away at Bathurst and Queen streets, the City of Toronto awaits federal approval to open a supervised injection drug site, where users like heroin addicts can get help if things go awry with their injection (such as an overdose) and get counselling and treatment. In both cases, it’s a waiting game for the federal government to act.
From the perspective of pain management these two drug issues intertwine. Veteran Affairs Canada has reported a decline in the opioid prescriptions it funds by 17 per cent in the past four years, while reimbursements for veterans’ pot prescriptions have ballooned by comparison. One cause for this shift may be the demonstrated effects of marijuana for dealing with the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“It’s a widely held misconception that overdoses are only linked to the use of illicit opioids like heroin.”
It’s a widely held misconception that overdoses are only linked to the use of illicit opioids like heroin. Experts say over-prescribing by doctors is the primary reason people are using and becoming addicted to drugs like oxycodone, hydromorphone, and fentanyl — and accidentally or deliberately taking a deadly dose. After their prescriptions run out, many turn to street-laced versions of these products. According to the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network, for the five years ending in 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available in Ontario, there were 2,879 deaths from opioid overdoses. The study found 638 people died in 2013 from opioid overdoses; a rate of about one death for every 20,000 residents in the province.
The Province of Ontario lags behind other provinces in data collection from overdose deaths, so it is helpful to look at the experiences of provinces like Alberta, whose data is more up to date. In Calgary, for example, the police chief Roger Chaffin urged swift action by government as the current rate of overdose deaths there exceeds those caused by homicides and traffic accidents. The chief says he lacks the resources, and nor is it practical, to deal with these issues on the supply side (the dealers) and that they must be addressed on the demand side (the addiction).
A recent report by the United States National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine drew one hundred conclusions about the benefits and harms of cannabis on a range of public health issues based on 10,000 studies published since 1999. It stated that marijuana can almost certainly ease chronic pain, but it may also raise the risk of developing schizophrenia. But, the report also concluded that for people with pre-existing schizophrenia it helps mitigate symptoms. The federal panel was comprised of representatives from leading U.S. research universities. The Academies are based in Washington, D.C. and were established by a charter signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
Though the aforementioned report called for more research so that the medical community and policy makers alike can make more informed decisions, an undeniable take away is that cannabis and its derivatives can ease pain like opioids do but without the downside of severe addiction and risk of overdose.
We have a lot to learn from the U.S. experience, because many states of the union have legalized pot, thumbing their noses at U.S. federal law which remains quite restrictive. There are studies from the United States that showed fatal opioid overdoses dropped by 25 per cent in states that have enacted medical pot laws. While these studies have not identified a cause and effect, the correlation of these facts is hard to ignore in an opioid epidemic.
The Canadian government must accelerate its approval processes to help addicts safely cope and get treatment in supervised injection sites and connect the dots with legalized marijuana as an alternate chronic pain reliever.
CHATTER: Marijuana dispensary opens (December 2016)
NEWS: City approves safe injection sites, as council embraces a public health approach (August 2016)
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