The Canadian Medical Association welcomes the opportunity to comment on proposed changes to Health Canada's Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, published in the Canada Gazette, Part I on December 15, 2012.
CMA provided comments on the proposed changes when Health Canada first announced them in June 2011. Our position on these changes, and indeed on the entire Medical Marihuana Access Program (MMAP), has been consistent since the program was initiated. We remain deeply concerned that, though the program has made a physician's authorization the key to a patient's access to medical marijuana, physicians and other health professionals have little to no evidence-based information about its use as medical therapy. As our President, Dr. Anna Reid, noted in December, the regulatory proposals are "equivalent to asking doctors to prescribe while blindfolded."
Health Canada gives two reasons for its regulatory proposal: first, to address concerns about the safety of home grow-ops; and secondly, to reduce the cost of administering a program that has proven more popular than anticipated. Neither of these reasons is related to improving patient care or advancing our clinical knowledge of marijuana as a medical treatment.
CMA understands that many Canadians suffer constant pain from chronic or terminal illnesses and are searching for anything that will provide relief. We know that some patients find that use of marijuana relieves their symptoms and that some health professionals also believe it has therapeutic value. However, we are concerned that these claims remain inadequately supported by scientific research. Controlled studies of medical marijuana have been published recently and some have shown benefits. However, these studies are few in number, of short duration and with small samples, and knowledgeable clinicians say that more research is required. In addition, some say that marijuana has become more potent since it became a popular recreational drug in the 1960s, though others disagree,1 and growers say they can develop strains tailored to the needs of individual medical users.2 Though these claims are part of the popular understanding of medical marijuana, there is no scientifically valid evidence that supports them.
What Physicians Have Told Us
In May 2012, CMA surveyed members of its "e-panel" of physicians to obtain more information about their attitudes and needs regarding medical marijuana. The survey received just over 600 responses out of more than 2,200, for a 27 per cent response rate. Among the findings:
* About 70 per cent of respondents had been asked by patients to approve medical marijuana, though only four per cent said they were asked to do so "often." Of those who were asked, one-third reported that they "never" supported such requests, while 18 per cent "usually" did so.
* 64 per cent of respondents were concerned that patients who request medical marijuana may actually be using it for recreational purposes;
* A large majority of respondents said they would find more information on the appropriate use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and on its therapeutic benefits and risks, useful or very useful.
* About two-thirds agreed or strongly agreed that they would feel more comfortable if:
o Physicians wishing to use medical marijuana in their practices were required to undergo special training and licensing; and,
o Health Canada offered them protection from liability.
* In open-ended questions, some respondents expressed favourable views on marijuana's medical benefits. However, a larger number expressed concern over its harmful effects, such as: psychotic symptoms, especially in younger people; potential for addiction and dependency; and the risks to lung health from smoking it or any other substance.
Marijuana is Not Like Other Therapeutic Products
Theoretically, marijuana, when used for medicinal purposes, is regulated under the Food and Drugs Act. However, because of its unique legal position, Health Canada has exempted it from the applications of the Act and its regulations, and it has not undergone the scrutiny of benefits and risks required of other therapeutic products approved for use in Canada, be they prescription-only or over-the-counter.
According to the Food and Drugs Act (FDA), all drugs requiring a health professional's authorization must be approved for use by Health Canada, based on evidence of effectiveness obtained from controlled clinical trials, which remain the best currently available means of validating knowledge. In addition, Health Canada has a system of post-market surveillance to keep track of problems that arise with prescription drugs in real-world use. Though the CMA has been critical of some aspects of this system,3 we acknowledge that it has added to our body of knowledge on drug safety risks. If marijuana were not an illegal product, it might have been assessed through some form of pre-approval and post-approval surveillance. By exempting marijuana from the FDA's pre-approval and post-approval requirements, Health Canada has lost an opportunity to improve our knowledge of the drug's therapeutic uses.
The Views of Canadians
A recent online survey conducted by Ipsos-Reid on behalf of the CMA provides insight into the views of Canadians on Health Canada's regulatory proposal.4 The survey found:
* 92 per cent of Canadians think it is very or somewhat important that Health Canada not remove itself from its oversight role until guidelines are put in place for physicians;
* 90 per cent believe that research on the effectiveness, safety and risks of medical marijuana is needed before Health Canada removes itself from the authorization process;
* 85 per cent of Canadians believe medical marijuana should be subject to the same rigorous testing and approval standards as other medicines;
* 79 per cent agree that Health Canada has a responsibility to maintain its role in the authorization process.;
The Role of the Physician
The CMA cannot with certainty predict the consequences of these regulatory changes for the practising physician (and, if the regulations are approved, for the nurse practitioner as well). However, we have several causes for concern:
* The gatekeeper role of health professionals: The most significant change, from our point of view, is that Health Canada is removing itself from the approval process, making it a transaction between the patient, the practitioner and the licensed producer. In addition, Section 125 of the regulatory proposal would reduce the content of the authorization form, from its current two-page format to a brief document requiring little more information than is required for a standard medical prescription.
We are concerned that these changes will put an even greater onus on physicians than do the current regulations. The CMA agrees with the Federation of Medical Regulatory Authorities that the lack of evidence to support the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes signifies that it is not a medical intervention. In our opinion, putting physicians in the role of gatekeeper for access to marijuana is inappropriate and may be an abdication of responsibility on Health Canada's part.5 Such a move could increase physicians' liability risk and put them at odds with their medical regulatory authorities, which have no choice but to continue to advise physicians to exercise extreme caution.
The CMA believes, as does the Canadian Medical Protective Association, that a drug's approval under the Food and Drugs Act does not impose a legal obligation on physicians or nurse practitioners to authorize its use if, in their judgment, it is clinically inappropriate. The Ontario Court of Appeal reached a similar decision recently in the case of R. v. Mernagh.
* Protection of Physician Privacy. Under the proposed regulations, health information and physician data - such as the patient's name and date of birth, or the provider's licence number - will be collected by licensed producers who may not be subject to the same regulatory and privacy constraints as the health care sector. The draft regulations also indicate that the licensed producer is expected to confirm that the data on the "medical document" is correct and complete - in other words, health providers who authorize medical marijuana use will receive correspondence from the producer. We are very concerned about the risks this would pose to the privacy of patient and health care provider information. We believe Health Canada should conduct a privacy impact assessment of its proposed regulations or, if it has done so, to share the results.
* Physicians as Dispensers. Section 124 of the proposed regulations would allow authorized health care practitioners to "sell, provide or administer dried marijuana." This is contrary to Article 46 of the CMA Guidelines for Physicians in Interactions with Industry, which states that "Physicians should not dispense pharmaceuticals or other products unless they can demonstrate that these cannot be provided by an appropriate other party."6
* Other possible consequences. We are also concerned about other potential consequences of the regulatory changes. Will more people go to health professionals requesting an authorization, on the assumption that the new regulations will make it easier to get? Will entrepreneurs seize the opportunity to establish "dispensaries" whose intended clientele are not those in legitimate medical need, as recent news stories have suggested?7 Will medical marijuana advocates put increased pressure on physicians to authorize its use?
Meeting the Information Needs of Physicians
In one respect, Health Canada has listened to physicians' concerns regarding the lack of evidence about medical marijuana, and acknowledged the need to remedy this problem. Though it is not addressed in the draft regulations, Health Canada has established an Expert Advisory Committee (EAC) to help provide comprehensive information to health professionals. The CMA has attended meetings of this committee in an observer capacity, suggested the names of practising physicians to serve as members, and made a presentation to the committee at its meeting in November 2012.
If the EAC follows the CMA's suggestions, it will consider actively supporting the following activities:
* Funding of scientific research on the clinical risks and benefits of marijuana;
* Knowledge translation activities to convert this research into accessible, user-friendly tools for education and practice;
* Development of best practice guidelines in the therapeutic use of marijuana. Though this guideline would of necessity be based on "C" level evidence, it would be an improvement on what now exists; and
* Support for a compulsory training and licensing program for physicians wanting to authorize marijuana for medicinal purposes.
The CMA believes that the EAC should be given the mandate and resources to undertake these activities.
Health Canada's stated mission is to help the people of Canada maintain and improve their health. The CMA believes that if Health Canada wants its Medical Marihuana Access Program to serve this mission, it should not withdraw from administering the program, leaving it to health professionals working within a large knowledge gap. Rather, it should support solid research into the use of marijuana as medication and make a commitment to share this knowledge with the health professional community and to support best clinical practices.
1 Bonsor K: "How marijuana works". Accessed at http://science.howstuffworks.com/marijuana5.htm
3 CMA Submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health: Post-Market Surveillance of Prescription Drugs (February 28, 2008). Accessed at http://www.cma.ca/multimedia/CMA/Content_Images/Inside_cma/Submissions/2008/brief-drug-en-08.pdf
4 Online survey of 1,000 Canadians the week of Feb. 24, 2013 conducted by Ipsos-Reid. Summary report of the poll can be accessed at www.cma.ca/advocacy/cma-media-centre.
5 Letter to Health Canada from Yves Robert, MD, President of the Federation of Medical Regulatory Authorities of Canada, November 4, 2011.
6 CMA. 2004. Guidelines for Physicians in Interactions with Industry. Guideline can be accessed online: http://policybase.cma.ca/dbtw-wpd/Policypdf/PD08-01.pdf
7 Lee J. "Ross Rebagliati to Open medical marijuana franchise." Vancouver Sun. January 23, 2013. Accessed at http://www.vancouversun.com/health/Ross+Rebagliati+open+medical+marijuana+franchise/7860946/story.html
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) is pleased to present this brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health for consideration as part of its study on the government's role in addressing prescription drug abuse in Canada.
It is increasingly recognized that while prescription medication has an important role in health care, the misuse and abuse of controlled psychoactive prescription medications, notably opioids such as oxycodone, fentanyl and hydromorphone, is emerging as a significant public health and safety issue. The use of prescription opioids is on the rise, in Canada and internationally. Canada has the second highest per capita consumption of prescription opioids in the world, after the United States. The CMA is particularly concerned about the impact of prescription drug abuse and misuse on vulnerable populations; notably, seniors, youth and First Nations. We note, for example, that in 2011 opioids were reported as the third most common drug (after alcohol and marijuana) used by students in Ontario.
Controlled prescription medications are legal products intended for legitimate therapeutic purposes, such as pain management or palliative and end-of-life care. However, they may also be used for recreational purposes or to feed an addiction. Though many patients are prescribed controlled drugs to treat medical conditions, it is addiction which drives the drugs' illegal acquisition through means such as doctor-shopping, forging prescribers' signatures, or buying from street dealers or the Internet.
Canada's physicians are concerned about the abuse and misuse of prescription medication for a number of reasons. For one, physicians need to assess the condition of patients who request the medication, and consider whether the use is clinically indicated and whether the benefits outweigh the risks. This can be challenging as there is no objective test for assessing pain, and therefore the prescription of opioids rests to a great extent on mutual trust between the physician and the patient. For another, physicians may need to prescribe treatment for patients who become addicted to the medications. Finally, they are vulnerable to patients who forge their signatures or use other illegal means to obtain prescriptions, or who present with fraudulent symptoms, or plead or threaten when denied the drugs they have requested.
Canada's physicians believe that the misuse and abuse of prescription medication is a serious problem and because of its complexity, requires a complex and multifaceted solution. Therefore, the CMA makes the following recommendations to the Committee:
1) A National Strategy to Address the Abuse and Misuse of Prescription Medication
The CMA recommends that the federal government work with provincial/territorial governments and other stakeholders to develop and implement a comprehensive national strategy to address the misuse and abuse of prescription medication in Canada.
The CMA has consistently recommended a comprehensive national strategy to address the problems of drug abuse in Canada, whether of illegal or prescription-based substances. The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, in its report First Do No Harm: Responding to Canada's Prescription Drug Crisis, has offered nearly 60 recommendations toward the development of a strategy to combat misuse of prescription medications. The CMA believes that such a strategy should include:
a) Prevention: Existing community programs and social marketing campaigns to address prescription drug abuse are generally aimed at young recreational users. For example, since many such users report that they get drugs from their parents' or friends' medicine cabinets, many jurisdictions have implemented prescription "take-back" programs, and education campaigns to promote safe storage and disposal of medications. Prevention strategies aimed at other types of prescription drug abuse, and targeting other populations such as health care providers, are still required.
b) Treatment: Appropriate services for the treatment of addiction to prescription drugs are also a vital part of a national strategy. The CMA recommends that all partners work to improve and promote access to treatment programs - not only for treatment of addiction, such as pharmacological interventions, support and counselling, and withdrawal management, but also to treat and manage pain. In particular, the CMA recommends improving access to culturally appropriate treatment, counselling and withdrawal management programs in rural and remote areas, and for First Nations.
c) Consumer Protection: There are several ways in which consumer protection strategies may form part of a strategy. One is modifications to the drugs themselves. For example, opioid manufacturers have developed formulations of their products intended to minimize their abuse potential, such as "slow-release" formulations and other forms of tamper-proofing to reduce a drug's potential for abuse. CMA supports further investigation into abuse-deterrent technologies.
d) Surveillance and Research: Our knowledge of the extent of the prescription drug abuse problem in Canada, and the effectiveness of strategies proposed to combat it, is limited by a number of factors. These will be more specifically addressed later in this brief.
2) Strategies to Enhance Optimal Prescribing in Canada
The CMA recommends that governments at all levels work with prescribers and the public, industry and other stakeholders to develop and implement a nationwide strategy to support optimal prescribing and medication use in Canada.
In an ideal world, all patients would be prescribed the medications that have the most beneficial effect on their condition while doing the least possible harm. The CMA acknowledges that we have not yet achieved that ideal, but believes that optimal prescribing in Canada is a goal worth achieving. Our 2010 position statement "A Prescription for Optimal Prescribing" (Appendix A) recommends a national strategy to promote best practices in prescribing, and its recommendations can be applied to the specific situation of prescription drug abuse. Key elements of this strategy are:
* Relevant, objective and easily accessible information for prescribers, which can readily be incorporated into every day practice. This can include clinical decision-support tools for use at the point of care.
* Ongoing development and dissemination of clinical guidance in pain management. A Canadian practice guideline for use of opioids to treat chronic non-cancer pain, prepared under the direction of the multi-stakeholder National Opioid Use Guideline Group (NOUGG), was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on June 15, 2010. A number of plans for dissemination of this guideline are under way, under the direction of the Michael G. DeGroote National Pain Centre at McMaster University. They include an online CME module, co-sponsored by the CMA, which is now being finalized by MDcme.ca, a professional education group based at Memorial University.
* Educational programs for prescribers in pain management and in the management of addictions. Both addiction treatment and pain management should be part of the educational curriculum in medical school and residency training as well as in continuing education. Educational programs could also provide prescribers with advice on how to recognize addiction in a patient, or on how to deal with fraudulent or aggressive patients.
* Ensuring that prescribers have access to expert advice if required. This could be achieved through such means as:
o Academic detailing programs, which use personalized one-on-one techniques to deliver impartial prescribing information to practitioners.
o Communities of practice and clinical support networks that link practitioners with experts in the field. Experts can not only provide clinical information, but can provide mentorship and personal advice on best practices.
3) Monitoring and Surveillance of Prescription Drug Abuse
The CMA recommends that all levels of government work with one another and health professional regulatory agencies to develop a pan-Canadian system of real-time prescription drug abuse monitoring and surveillance.
One of the challenges in dealing with prescription drug abuse is the incompleteness of our knowledge of the extent of the problem, or of the most effective ways to address it. This means that physicians do not have access in real time to the information they need, at the point of care. For example, except in Prince Edward Island, physicians do not have the ability to look up a patient's medical history to determine if he or she has received a prescription from another source.
Prescription monitoring programs exist in most provinces, but they vary in quality, in the nature of the information they require, and in the purpose for which data is collected. Some are administered by regulatory colleges, others by governments. The CMA recommends that national standards be developed for prescription monitoring programs, to ensure that all jurisdictions across Canada are collecting the same information in a standard way. Standardization of surveillance and monitoring systems can have a number of positive effects:
* It can help identify fraudulent attempts to obtain a prescription, such as an attempt to fill prescriptions from a number of different providers.
* It can help deter cross-provincial fraud.
* It can help professional regulatory bodies actively monitor and intervene, as needed, with practitioners suspected of over-prescribing or over-dispensing frequently-misused medications.
* Finally, it will help researchers gather consistent data to improve our knowledge of the problem, identify research priorities, and determine best practices to address crucial issues.
The CMA also recommends that this system be electronic and that it be compatible with electronic medical and pharmacy record systems, and with provincial pharmaceutical databases such as British Columbia's.
Provincial and territorial governments should work with the federal government and with health care providers to improve the standardization and sharing of information where appropriate. Prescription monitoring programs should be evaluated to ascertain their effectiveness in reducing misuse and abuse.
We are pleased that federal, provincial and territorial health ministries have expressed interest in working together on issues related to prescription drug abuse, and we hope that this will result in a coherent national system for monitoring and surveillance, and thus to improved knowledge about the nature of the problem and its most effective solutions.
In conclusion, the Canadian Medical Association reiterates the deep concern of Canada's physicians about prescription drug abuse and misuse in this country. We are committed to enhancing optimal prescribing and to working with governments to develop and implement a strong, coherent plan of action to address this pressing national problem.