Medical marijuana and conscience rights

Some Canadian physicians are anxious that regulatory changes will pressure doctors to prescribe marijuana. Dr. William Pope, the registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba, told the Winnipeg Free Press in January that the college is worried that federal reforms will lead more patients to ask doctors for marijuana. “As far as most of us are concerned, there is really no appropriate prescribing,” he said.

Physicians are now permitted to dispense marijuana with the approval of the province. Patients applying for marijuana access no longer have to submit personal health information to Health Canada. It is also easier for individuals with less serious conditions to get medical marijuana. Pot users will not be able to grow their own marijuana anymore, but will have to buy it from commercial growers licensed by the federal government. On April 1, the new rules came into effect. According to the Winnipeg Free Press, officials predict that the number of cannabis users across the country could rise from 37,000 to 450,000 by 2024 as a result.

Canadian physicians’ organizations have previously criticized some of the new regulations coming into place. In December 2012, the Canadian Medical Association issued a press release decrying the federal government’s decision to cease regulating medical marijuana, shifting the responsibility to doctors.

“Not only does prescribing drugs that haven’t been clinically tested fly in the face of a physician’s training and ethics, the potential benefits or adverse effects of marijuana haven’t been rigorously tested,” said Dr. Anna Reid, president of the CMA at the time. “There’s huge potential for harm to patients and the federal government’s decision is equivalent to asking doctors to prescribe while blindfolded.”

Medical marijuana advocates are dealing with the reluctance of physicians to prescribe medical marijuana by promoting the services of doctors who dispense the drug.

One example is the Medicinal Cannabis Resource Centre, Inc. based out of Vancouver, which puts patients in touch with doctors who will prescribe. The organization is opening offices in Toronto, Halifax, and Edmonton, and charges $400 for consultations with patients over the internet by Skype.

Is it possible that doctors could be bullied into prescribing marijuana by the state? “It is only likely to become a problem if people begin to demand that physicians prescribe and threaten them with disciplinary or human rights actions if they refuse to do so,” said Sean Murphy, administrator of the Protection of Conscience Project, to The Interim in an email. “In the short term, that seems unlikely.”

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