With recreational marijuana dominating public conversation since legalization last October, and even before that, issues with access to medicinal cannabis for Canadians have fallen to the wayside.
That’s according to Dr. Rahim Dhalla, an Ottawa pharmacist who decided to open a pharmacy in Westboro last year that, on top of your standard medications, also offered education and health information surrounding medicinal cannabis and other related products.
Dhalla’s father, a lifelong pharmacist himself, was diagnosed with cancer and saw benefits from cannabidiol (CBD) oils during his treatment, which Dhalla said was the inspiration for the pharmacy.
"There's a huge 'opiod-sparing effect' with it, this is helping a lot of patients get off medication but there's huge need for proper access to education," he said in an interview with OttawaMatters.com.
Cannabis is not a ‘cure-all,’ he said but it has medical purposes and hybridpharm looks to educate how to make it part of a healthy lifestyle, along with other aspects like exercise and diet.
“That’s why it’s called ‘Hybrid,’ it’s not just ‘take one pill and you’re going to get better,” he said.
That being said, those who legitimately need medical cannabis products are limited in access, as it remains only available by mail and recreational storefronts are not allowed to answer medical questions.
“There’s a time and place for rec, I appreciate it, I go there, I like it, but if we’re talking about medication, you need to have a level of education behind it,” Dhalla said, which includes proper dosage and information on how cannabis interacts with other drugs.
He worries planned amendments to The Cannabis Act to deal with medicinal cannabis, not expected until 2023 at least, are going to exacerbate that problem and continue driving patients underground.
“Where are patients going to go? People are still going to be going to the black market, these regular dispensaries and not getting proper medical oversight,” he said.
“The whole model needs to change, there needs to be access for patients because this online system doesn’t’ work, it’s so inefficient.”
It is these access issues that led him to start a petition to allow pharmacists and pharmacies to dispense medical cannabis, a petition that was tabled just before the summer rising of the House of Commons.
The hope is Health Canada takes a serious look at the issue, Dhalla said, as he feels the Canadian Medical Association and physicians have been slow to adapt to medicinal cannabis, though he admitted that research has been hard to come by.
“It was never taught in medical school, it’s just getting started now,” he said. “It’s a big issue.”
In terms of his own clinic, Dhalla said a patient looking to access marijuana for medicinal reasons can come in for a consultation and the team will work with them to see if it would suit their personal needs, based on medical history and other factors.
The clinic then reaches out to the patient’s doctor to see if they would be interested in issuing a prescription to help deal with specific medical issues.
Dhalla finds Doctors much more receptive in information coming from a pharmacist, but that there is still a stigma involved and some physicians are hesitant to prescribe it.
After a prescription, hybridpharm then works with patients to discuss what best would work for specific symptoms, how it can be incorporated into their life and other ways to boost a healthy lifestyle.
While there are usually regular issues starting and maintaining a small business, Dhalla said there’s been a few unique issues thrown his way as his clinic continues to get off the ground.
“People walk in and think it's a dispensary and don’t know what’s going on, people ask if I’m a real pharmacist,” he said. “But getting over the stigma is still apparent.”
Expansion would be a dream for Dhalla, with clinics across the country, a model he said was “necessary and needs to exist.”
“At the end of the day, we’re just trying to let patients live better lives.”