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hen you talk to people who live with chronic pain, you will hear one thing time and again — when the pain gets bad enough, you’ll try anything. And yet, when medical cannabis is presented as an option, the stigma and a lack of good information can raise a barrier between a patient and a possible effective treatment.

“There has been 100 years of misinformation about this plant,” says pain and addiction specialist Dr. Lionel Marks de Chabris. “It can be quite hard to overcome that.” It is of course sensible and responsible to question any new medication you’re considering taking. It’s just a matter of having the right questions. 

Is it safe?

The question of safety is paramount with pain medications, now more than ever as stories of opioid addiction and overdose are becoming far too common in Canada. This specific comparison, between the safety of cannabis and other medicines for chronic pain is night and day. “Cannabis is far safer than the other options,” says Dr. Marks de Chabris. “No one has ever found a lethal dose of cannabis. And the risk of addiction in most people is very low.”

Is it legal?

Cannabis is legal for medical use across Canada if you have authorization and purchase it from a licensed provider (or grow it yourself with a license). Much broader legalization of cannabis for non-medical use also appears to be on the horizon, but even if legalization comes to pass, you should still consult with your health care provider if you’re considering it for pain relief.

How does it work?

While scientific research into medical cannabis is still relatively young, the evidence for its ability to be an effective pain medication is mounting quickly. Cannabis is a complex plant made up of over 600 compounds, but the two compounds medical experts are most interested in are THC and CBD, both cannabinoids. These compounds work on the body’s endocannabinoid system, a recently discovered part of our nervous system that uses the cannabis like compounds the body produces itself for purposes related to stress response, pain management, appetite control, and memory.

“There’s rising evidence that it isn’t just THC or just CBD which provides the best benefit,” says Dr. Marks de Chabris, “but rather a mixture of both.” By trying formulations with different ratios of THC and CBD — whether vaporized or taken orally — you and your doctor can fine tune the medication to get the desired effects, like pain relief, while minimizing unwanted side effects, such as intoxication. Put bluntly, you don’t have to get high.

Is it effective?

As Dr. Marks de Chabris succinctly puts it, “Every therapy for every patient is a trial.” Medical cannabis, like any pain mediation, isn’t guaranteed to work for everyone. But many patients have found effective relief from pain with medical cannabis when every other option has failed them. People have gotten their lives back. And for Dr. Marks de Chabris, that’s the most important thing. “Nobody should have a life limited by pain.”