Is there anything more divisive than medical cannabis?
Not for Dr. Michael Verbora, chief medical officer at Aleafia Health. Through private clinics Canabo and GrowWise, he and a team of physicians and nurse practitioners meet with Canadians who, despite having a diverse set of medical conditions, often come looking for the same thing.
They want a cannabis treatment plan to help them find relief. But even though the majority of his patients are all looking for similar outcomes, he says there’s usually a need to myth-bust preconceived notions about medical cannabis.
Patients often fall into two camps. They are either far more trepidatious than they need to be — or far too optimistic about the power of cannabis.
“I’ve never worked in a field with such polarizing opinions,” Verbora tells The GrowthOp. “Literally, I could see two patients back-to-back and they can be on opposite sides of the spectrum.”
With the sheer volume of information that’s being generated about the pros and cons, it’s understandable why so many people get medical cannabis wrong. Here are some of the most common misconceptions, according to the experts.
“When I meet with patients, the vast majority don’t want THC — they don’t want to get high,” Dr. Verbora says. “That’s probably because our patient population is 60-year-olds, on average, with multiple conditions, on multiple medications and who have minimal to no experience with cannabis.”
But there are two problems with this degree of caution toward medical cannabis. For one, THC can be a necessary component of a treatment plan. Even though consumers use it recreationally to get high, the cannabinoid also contains plenty of therapeutic potential.
But it’s also a myth that feeling high is a necessary part of a cannabis treatment plan that includes THC: “It’s about how you dose it and how often you take it,” Verbora says. “Most of the benefits of THC typically come at sub-psychoactive doses.”
“There are a lot of myths about its risks,” agrees president and co-founder of Quebec’s Santé Cannabis clinics Erin Prosk in an email. “Our nurses report spending more time re-educating patients on these myths than (others). I think this is a factor of age — the mean age of our patients is almost 60.”
Then there is the other end of the spectrum: Those who think medical cannabis could treat any and all illnesses. Prosk says her team reports that medical cannabis is seen as a panacea, and “patient expectations can far exceed the realistic potential for therapeutic benefit.”
One particular area of concern are people hoping to avoid chemotherapy or radiation treatments for cancer. Instead, cannabis can be helpful to treat symptoms associated with chemotherapy or radiation, such as appetite loss or nausea. It’s not a cure.
“This used to be more common and is less so now,” says Prosk.
But even though it seems fewer patients are hopeful for a cannabis cancer cure, both Prosk and Verbora cite recent reports pertaining to CBD’s potential as an “immune system modulator” and therefore a potential preventative measure or treatment against COVID-19 as a new cause for concern. This kind of research can take years to reliably advance, and the virus’s existence was only identified this past winter. Plus, even cautiously optimistic reports are misleading.
“This is a gross simplification of the immune response to CBD,” Prosk says.
Perhaps the most worrisome cohort are those who don’t seek medical guidance at all — they experiment with medical cannabis therapy at home. And often without heeding any risks.
For them, “medical cannabis is ‘natural’ so it must be safe or safer than pharmaceutical medications — which is not always the case, definitely not for all patients,” Prosk says.
Verbora says that when many of these folks throw caution to the wind, they end up over-medicating — and could actually do themselves more harm than good.
“Using THC daily, all the time for mental health in high doses, I think the evidence to date shows that it creates more problems long term than benefits,” he says.
Instead, particularly for those looking to treat mental health disorders like anxiety, depression or stress, he warns not to overdo the THC. Plus, there is more evidence for the benefits of treatments like psychotherapy — see a doctor and investigate these tactics before self-medicating with cannabis at home.