Local entrepreneurs hope to further legitimize marijuana as a medical treatment.
Toronto’s fifth medical cannabis clinic is coming to the Annex in November, and the medical and business professionals interested in the venture are far from the stereotypes marijuana tends to conjure.
At the Distillery District’s urban Airship357 last week, a mature and professional crowd gathered for a presentation on how to effectively bake marijuana into butter and coconut oil for the production of edibles, an event sponsored by Canadian Cannabis Clinics.
Toronto-based chef Cathy O’Conner, who is beginning to specialize in medical marijuana edibles, delivered the presentation. As a user of the substance, she has experienced the stigmatization of medicating her arthritis with cannabis.
“I have a daughter who is really anti-marijuana and a school teacher,” she said. “And when I asked her to watch my presentation, she still said it would make her very uncomfortable.”
Trish McDonald, 46, attended the event and said she doesn’t get a lot of judgement from her friends or family because, “Most people know the hell I have been through and wouldn’t trade places with me for anything.”
McDonald had been taking a high-dose of daily painkillers for more than a decade to treat lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease. But fearing the long-term effects of the painkillers, a few months ago McDonald switched to cannabis.
Because of problems with her lungs, she learned how to bake the cannabis into cookies using her cannabis butter mixture. “I was asleep before my head hit the pillow,” McDonald said. “My friends now call me the cookie monster,” she laughed.
But McDonald is one of many who cannot get access to medical marijuana in small-town Ontario, a common obstacle for patients who seek an alternative to traditional painkillers.
“The vast majority don’t want to prescribe because they do not know a lot about it, unlike pharmaceuticals, where there is clear guidance on dosing and what not,” said Ronan Levy, Director of Canadian Cannabis Clinics.
“It is also largely because of the stigma,” he added.
The three clinics in Toronto that exist, as well as a fourth opening in two weeks, share the mandate to destigmatize marijuana by becoming a trustworthy bridge between physicians and the government-registered suppliers.
Levy’s clinics, like other medical cannabis clinics that are seeking to gain legitimacy and trust, do not carry marijuana on site. Nor do they look like a traditional head shop.
“The way to establish credibility is by focusing on the physicians in the medical community,” said Levy. “Some people come without a referral and attempt to get around the system but we have a fairly robust screening system.”
Canadian Cannabis Clinics only accepts patients with referral. They also provide frequent follow-ups with both physicians and patients, and conduct educational seminars for physicians in the area.
This approach is meant to differentiate the few cannabis clinics from the wave of dispensaries opening in Canadian cities, many of which mask themselves as medical endeavours.
In Vancouver, close to 100 dispensaries have opened in the last few years, which often function illegally. Many of these sites provide in-house physicians or naturopaths, some of whom will freely give a prescription for walk-in “patients” for any kind of “pain” they experience.
The epidemic of posing as a “medical clinic” makes it more difficult for reputable clinics to build credibility, said Carolina Landolt, who is opening the Summertree Medical Clinic at Bloor and Spadina this fall and hosted the event in the Distillery.
“Trying to slide the recreational market under the medical umbrella is weakening the entire market and tarring everyone with the same brush,” said Landolt, who will be the first woman to own and operate a cannabinoid clinic in Toronto.
“I think there should be very distinct lines that get dealt with differently and honestly,” she added.
As a former University Health Network researcher who specialized in autoimmune rheumatic diseases, Landolt became interested in the legitimacy of marijuana for pain because her patients continued to request information.
Now she hopes to be able to distinguish herself from the recreational marijuana providers with the same rigorous process and method as the Canadian Cannabis Clinics.
The important part, she emphasized, is to see a reduction in harm and improvement in the quality of life.
Photo by Lindsay Fitzgerald.