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Canadians may not feel comfortable disclosing their cannabis use to their doctors. Photo by Samantha Peng.

CMA president: Doctors must combat stigma of cannabis use

“Legalization normalizes use and so we have to normalize that discussion with our patients in our interactions,” says Dr. Gigi Osler

By Samantha Peng , in City , on October 25, 2018

The president of the Canadian Medical Association says doctors need to help destigmatize conversations about cannabis use with their patients now that the substance has been legalized.

“Legalization normalizes use and so we have to normalize that discussion with our patients in our interactions,” said Dr. Gigi Osler.

In the face of cannabis stigma, Osler suggested doctors encourage discussion by bringing up the topic first, as patients may not.

Osler, an ears, nose, and throat surgeon, asks her patients specifically about cannabis use when taking their medical history. She also encourages her patients to talk about it with their family doctor.

But one family doctor says it will be up to each practitioner to educate themselves about the risks and benefits of cannabis.

Dr Elisabeth Perri has taken the initiative to learn more about how to prescribe cannabis. She said younger doctors are more likely to be knowledgeable about cannabis while longtime practicing doctors may not be.

“I teach medical students from UBC and they know more about cannabis than I do,” said Perri.

Still many doctors aren’t comfortable talking about cannabis 

Osler said that doctors may still not feel comfortable discussing or prescribing cannabis to their patients because there hasn’t been any large-scale clinical testing of the substance.

The UBC hospital leaves a sign at its main entrance to remind people that smoking and vaping is not allowed on its grounds.

She said the same rigorous studies that go into pharmaceutical drugs aren’t there for cannabis.

Osler said that physicians need to look back on what has been learned over the years with other recreational substances.

“Our thinking has to shift. It is a legal substance and our focus needs to be on the health of our patients,” said Osler.

She said that a third of Canadians experience cannabis-related problems and one out of ten users develop a dependence.

Another challenge is that users in different parts of the country experience varying degrees of stigma from doctors. Osler said Quebec doctors have told her there is more stigma regarding cannabis in their province because of a difference in culture.

Despite this obstacle, Osler said to receive better care patients should mention their cannabis use to their doctors as its use remains a health concern.  

“Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s safe,” Osler said.