Despite a strong body of evidence to suggest that medical cannabis eases chronic pain and reduces side effects associated with opiates, some doctors claim as few as 10 percent of palliative care patients have access to medical marijuana.
"The literature on the use of cannabis in health care repeatedly refers to changes for users that may be equated with improvement in quality of life as an outcome of its use," according to a study published in the Journal of Nursing. "This has led to increased use of cannabis by these service users. However, the cannabis used is usually obtained illegally and can have consequences for those who choose to use it for its therapeutic value and for nurses who are providing care."
Outdated restrictions on the plant present barriers to access for dying patients, denying them access to medicine that could, in some cases, dramatically improve the quality of their final weeks and months.
Cannabis is the 'only effective' anti-nausea medicine
"A day doesn't go by where I don't see a cancer patient who has nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, pain, depression and insomnia," Dr. Donald Abrams, chief of hematology-oncology at San Francisco General Hospital and a professor of clinical medicine, tells Newsweek.
Marijuana, he says, "is the only anti-nausea medicine that increases appetite."
"It also helps patients sleep and elevates their mood - no easy feat when someone is facing a life-threatening illness."
A majority of Canadian hospitals lack a regulatory framework in which to administer a medical marijuana program, although some patients are pushing for new regulations that would permit them to vaporize medical marijuana, instead of being forced to switch to THC pills or sprays, which some say are less effective.
Doctors need to be educated about marijuana
When it comes to end-of-life care, Dr. Paul Daeninck, a palliative medicine consultant with Cancer Care Manitoba in Winnipeg, tells CTV many doctors aren't informed about when and how to prescribe medical marijuana to dying patients.
"I don't think there are a large number of palliative care physicians who have the knowledge (about medical marijuana) who are open to sitting down and discussing it with patients," he said.
In the U.S., there's similar discord between the findings on the benefits of medical marijuana in a palliative care setting, and strict laws surrounding where and when it is prescribed.
In 2008, the American College of Physicians (ACP) published a position paper underscoring the therapeutic value of cannabis and specifically recommending the federal government consider, "reclassification [of cannabis] into a more appropriate schedule, given the scientific evidence regarding marijuana's safety and efficacy in some clinical conditions."
And in 2012, a report to the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine by Dr. Chad. D. Kollas suggested that a change in cannabis' CSA schedule is needed in order to facilitate better research on how it can help patients die with dignity.
As Dr. Paul Daeninck tells CTV, "When we have patients with hard-to-treat pain, we have to look at all the modalities we have available to us. Medical cannabis is one of those. So we have to broaden our knowledge and our attempts to help these patients."