Medical Cannabis

Since 2001, medical cannabis has been a legal treatment option in Canada for certain health conditions, including arthritis. While cannabis can’t cure arthritis or slow disease progression, some people report that it helps to alleviate their symptoms.

"Medical cannabis" refers to any products made from cannabis or its active ingredients intended for health purposes.  In Canada, the supply of medical cannabis is controlled by the federal government, which regulates production and distribution.  While non-medicinal cannabis is now legal in Canada and may come from similar or the same plant sources as medical cannabis, the Arthritis Society recommends obtaining a document for medical cannabis from an authorized healthcare professional.  Self-medicating with recreational cannabis is not a safe substitute for supervised care by a doctor or nurse practitioner.

In accordance with the guidelines of the Canadian Rheumatology Association, medical cannabis should not be used to treat rheumatology patients under the age of 25.

What is Medical Cannabis?

Cannabis is a flowering plant that produces chemicals called cannabinoids, which can be used to treat the symptoms of a number of conditions, including arthritis. These chemicals interact with our body’s endocannabinoid system that can affect pain, inflammation, immune function, appetite, heart function, memory, and mood.

While medical cannabis can’t cure arthritis or slow disease progression, there are studies that demonstrate it can help relieve arthritis pain as well as address sleep issues and anxiety.  

Medical Cannabis vs. Recreational Cannabis
Used to address symptoms of various health conditions   Used for non-medicinal purposes
Dosing can be indicated so that there is little to no euphoric effect (“high”)   Generally used for euphoric effect (“high”)
Requires medical document (authorization)   Not a safe substitute for supervised care
Accessed directly from a Health Canada Licensed Producer or grown by consumer   Accessed from an authorized recreational cannabis retailer or grown by consumer
 
Infographic [PDF] 806 kB   Online Module

This resource was reviewed in November 2019 with expert advice from:

Dr. Carolina Landolt-Marticorena, MD, PhD, FRCPC
Rheumatologist
Summertree Medical Clinic
Runnymede Healthcare Centre

Scientific Advisor
MediPharm Labs

CBD & THC

CBD and THC are the key active ingredients in medical cannabis. 

Icon of CBDCBD, or cannabidiol, is a non-euphoric chemical, which means it will not make you feel “high” and can even help counteract some of the negative effects of THC when they are used together. CBD has been used to treat inflammation and chronic pain, along with managing anxiety and insomnia.

Icon of THCTHC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical that can cause a “high” or intoxicated feeling when taken in sufficient doses, but in small doses it can be helpful for some symptoms.   THC can help decrease pain, anxiety, tension and nausea. When taken in higher doses, it can heighten sensory perceptions, alter sense of time, and impact motor control. High doses of THC may also bring feelings of anxiety and paranoia for some people. 

Icon of THC CBDMedical cannabis products can contain primarily CBD, primarily THC, or a balance of the two. It’s recommended that individuals with arthritis start with CBD-dominant products and introduce THC in small amounts if needed.

To learn more about CBD and THC, visit our online module:

Medical Cannabis for Arthritis – CBD & THC

Using Medical Cannabis

Medical cannabis can be ingested, inhaled, applied topically as a cream, or dissolved as a spray. Depending on the form of medical cannabis, the rate at which you experience its effects can vary. 

Icon of a bottle with Cannabis leafCannabis Oil:
Cannabis oil is diluted with a carrier oil, such as sunflower or avocado oil, and is used with a dropper or put into a capsule. The oil can be mixed with food or drink or placed directly under the tongue, where it is held for one minute to facilitate transfer into the blood stream. 

Icon of a spray bottleSprays:
Sprays are applied under the tongue and absorbed into the bloodstream.
 

Icon of a lotion container with a cannabis leafTopical Creams:
Topical creams can be applied directly on the skin and are absorbed into the blood stream. Topical creams can have pain-relieving effects at the site of application.

Icon of an eaten cookieCannabis-infused foods:
Also known as edibles. These include any food products created using cannabis, such as items made with cooking fats infused with cannabis (i.e. olive oil, coconut oil, butter).  These are processed by your body’s digestion system and take up to 2 hours to reach maximum effect. The effects of edible cannabis also last longer.  

Icon of an inhaled-vaporizersInhaled-vaporizers, e-cigarettes, joint:
Dried cannabis needs to be heated in order for CBD and THC to take effect. Vaporizers and e-cigarettes use heating elements that can activate the chemicals. Smoking medical cannabis is not recommended.   

If you are using medical cannabis for the first time, it’s recommended to start with a CBD-dominant product at the lowest dose, and gradually increase your dosage until your symptom needs are met.  Capsules and oil make it easier to accurately track dosage and find the lowest dose for symptom management.

Icon of an eaten cookie with a warning signFor cannabis-infused foods, it’s important to exercise caution and take small amounts with lower doses of THC, as the effects of edibles can be stronger than other forms of cannabis and may result in more pronounced side effects.  

To learn more about delivery methods of medical cannabis, visit our online learning module:

Medical Cannabis for Arthritis – Forms of Medical Cannabis

Risks

When taken in sufficient doses, THC has side effects that impact sensory processing, cognition and fine motor coordination.  It can also cause anxiety and panic attacks in some people.

Icon of a pregnant womanPeople who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant or are breastfeeding should not use cannabis.  

 

Icon of a carThe federal government has established legal limits for blood THC content. Individuals should not drive after using cannabis. The amount of time that is needed before driving depends on the method of administration and the THC content of the cannabis that has been used. 

Icon of a brain with a plus signCannabis use can be harmful for individuals with a personal or family history of psychotic illness, substance use disorder or suicidal thoughts.

Icon of Cannabis leavesPeople under 25, individuals who have had a substance use disorder, and those who use THC frequently are at a higher risk of developing a cannabis use disorder (cannabis addiction). 

To learn more about risks, visit our online learning module:

Medical Cannabis for Arthritis – Risks

  • Important Notes
    • While medical cannabis is legal for use in Canada with a physician's order, medical cannabis is not a Health Canada-approved treatment. To date, there is limited clinical evidence on the relative benefits and risks of medical cannabis on the treatment of arthritis.
    • People under the age of 25 are at an increased risk of adverse effects from cannabis use, including cognitive problems from THC-dominant products. The Canadian Rheumatology Association advises against the use of medical cannabis by rheumatology patients under theage of 25.  
    • The information found here is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute the advice of a physician. Consult your physician or other relevant health professional for specific information on personal health matters to ensure that your individual circumstances are considered.
    • As of October 17, 2018, recreational cannabis is legal in Canada. Self-medicating with recreational cannabis is not a safe substitute for receiving medical cannabis from a licensed seller under the direction of your healthcare provider.
    • The Arthritis Society is a leading advocate for research into the use of cannabis for medical purposes, and for the needs of people who use cannabis for medical purposes. For more information, visit our medical cannabis advocacy page.

Accessing Medical Cannabis

Medical Cannabis: A Guide to Access

This guide is intended for adults only. The Arthritis Society does not endorse or recommend medical cannabis.

This guide has been created for educational purposes to provide information about medical cannabis as a potential treatment option for arthritis symptoms.

Medical Cannabis: A  Guide to Access [PDF 3.2MB]

The Cannabis Regulations – specifically Part 14: Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes sets the rules for how patients can access medical cannabis in Canada. Cannabis Laws and Regulations set the rules for recreational cannabis access and use in Canada.

To learn more about accessing medical cannabis, visit our online learning module:

Medical Cannabis for Arthritis – Accessing Medical Cannabis

Our Position

Our Position on Medical Cannabis

For people living with chronic pain, the options for medication to assist with pain management are limited, and each has its drawbacks. For these people, medical cannabis offers a potential alternative to traditional pharmaceuticals such as NSAIDs, acetaminophen and opioids. However, there are many unanswered questions about the use of medical cannabis to treat arthritis symptoms, and physicians have received no formal guidelines about when and how to authorize cannabis for medical purposes. 

To address this gap, the Arthritis Society is funding research into the use of medical cannabis for treatment of arthritis symptoms, and is leading a coalition of voices from across the Canadian health care sector in calling for more investment in medical cannabis research. At the same time, we are working to ensure that the process by which Canadians access this treatment option is fair, reliable, safe and affordable. 

Research and Reports

The Arthritis Society has been involved in discussions and research around medical cannabis as a treatment option for arthritis symptoms. The videos and resources below provide highlights and insight from this past work.

Online Learning Module

Our online learning module, “Understanding Medical Cannabis for Arthritis”, is designed to provide you with reliable, evidence-based information about medical cannabis to help you make informed choices about your arthritis care.  

Learn More

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This resource was made possible through an educational grant from Spectrum Therapeutics.

Spectrum Therapeutics