Medical cannabis touted as displacement for ‘patently more dangerous’ drugs

Employers and insurers could reduce their pharmaceutical spending by embracing medical cannabis, according to the chief medical officer for a licensed producer of the drug.

Dr. Peter Blecher, a pain medicine specialist who works for Starseed Medicinal Inc., told attendees at Benefits Canada’s Chronic Disease at Work conference that cannabis holds a great deal of promise for managing symptoms.

“I’ve seen patients reduce their dependence on biologics that are costing hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “Cannabis is not a panacea for anything, but it can certainly help displace a lot of drugs that are patently more dangerous.”

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Blecher said the drugs at the top of his priority list for replacement are opiates, which he linked to the ongoing crisis in Canada and the United States.

During 25 years as an emergency room doctor, he has witnessed some of the fallout from the problem up close. He said medical cannabis could be a solution thanks to the opioid-sparing effects of cannabidiol, an active and non-intoxicating ingredient in the plant.

And a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association lends some weight to the theory in light of findings that states with legal frameworks for medical cannabis have seen drops in opiate prescription under a government insurance program. That was the case even though the plan doesn’t cover medical cannabis.

“These are people spending their own after-tax dollars,” said Blecher. “Imagine if you actually gave them coverage for that.”

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Blecher, however, expressed frustration with the stigma associated with cannabis, arguing that critics tend to conflate medicinal and recreational use. As with any sedating, psychoactive drug, it’s possible to misuse cannabis, he said.

“When someone is using cannabis recreationally, they are intentionally using as much as they need to every time, for the specific purpose of getting intoxicated,” he said. “Real medical users use as little as they need to control their symptoms with the specific intent of not wishing to become intoxicated. It’s totally the opposite.”

The situation is different from fears about people getting high at work, Blecher noted.

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“It’s about all injured workers reducing their chance of addiction and finding a better way to manage their pain,” he added, suggesting employers should treat cannabis intoxication in the same way they treat on-the-job drunkenness.