Chronic Pain Patients in Alberta Revolt

By Marvin Ross, Guest Columnist

Last week the Chronic Pain Association of Canada issued a press release calling upon the Alberta health minister to investigate the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA) for “its unwarranted and secret cautioning and sanctioning” of doctors who prescribe opioid medication.

The press release came after a public meeting of pain patients in Edmonton organized by the group Help Alberta's Pain. Numerous patients showed up to complain about the poor quality of pain care in Alberta.

The meeting was so successful that the organizer, Tracy Fosum, told me that more meetings are being arranged in Edmonton, Calgary, Sherwood Park, Lethbridge and one in Northern Alberta.

An estimated 1.25 million Albertans suffer from chronic pain and 125,000 have long used opiate analgesics in order to function. In March, an Edmonton pain practice shutdown, throwing nearly 1,000 of these patients out of care.  

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“Thousands of Albertans with pain have lost specialist and primary care because the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta has forced doctors to stop prescribing opiates. The province's pain specialists are retiring in large numbers, citing College intimidation,” Barry Ulmer, Executive Director of the Chronic Pain Association of Canada said in a statement.

In response, the CPSA issued a statement from Registrar Dr. Scott McLeod calling such claims “misinformation” and denying there was an exodus of pain physicians from the profession.   

“Many Albertans suffer with severe daily pain and need medical assistance to allow them to live productive lives with their family, friends and in the workplace. We understand the challenges these Albertans face and encourage physicians to work with their patients to find a sustainable solution,” McLeod said. “Responsible prescribing does not include abrupt discontinuation or tapering of opioids or abandoning patients who use opioids.”

McLeod said the CPSA has been successful in reducing overdoses and opioid prescriptions. Accidental overdose deaths in Alberta from prescription opioids have been cut in half, there has been a 20% decline in opioid prescribing since 2016, and 13% fewer patients received an opioid in 2018 compared to 2016.

Patients Denied Treatment

Tracy Fosum recently appeared on the Roy Green syndicated radio show to talk about her personal experiences as a long time chronic pain patient in Alberta. Suffering from what even I recognized as the classic signs of a heart attack, she went to a local Edmonton hospital. Staff were suspicious of Tracy because of her high opioid use and, after a cursory exam, suggested she go home and take some NSAIDs for what they decided were chest muscle spasms.

Later, Tracy went to another hospital emergency room, where she was forced to wait for six hours as, she contends, they mistook her for a drug seeking addict. While trying to convince them to do an EKG, she went into cardiac arrest and collapsed. Fortunately, Tracy survived but ended up with heart damage because she had to wait too long.

Meanwhile, the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons is in the process of revising their opioid prescribing guidelines. A new draft policy states: “Physicians must not taper patients inappropriately or arbitrarily. Physicians are reminded that it is not always possible or appropriate to taper below a specific dose, nor is it usually appropriate to suddenly or rapidly taper prescriptions.”

The proposed guideline also states that “arbitrarily refusing to prescribe these drugs in all cases and without consideration for the circumstances of the patient may lead to inadequate patient care.”

While this is a step in the right direction, the problem is that patients have little recourse other than filing a formal complaint if a doctor provides poor treatment. A formal complaint can take months to years to resolve and ruins a doctor/patient relationship.

I am personally familiar with one case where a chronic pain patient was refused care by a doctor unless she agreed not to take any opioid medication. That doctor was sanctioned for refusing a patient on narcotics and refusing to prescribe narcotics, but the sanction was simply “Don't do that. You cannot refuse.” That patient now has no doctor because no one will take her on.

The Colleges can revise their rules and recommendations all they want, but they also need to ensure that doctors adhere to them.

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Marvin Ross is a medical writer and publisher in Dundas, Ontario. He is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Still No Relief in Sight for Canadian Pain Patients

By Marvin Ross, Guest Columnist

Last month the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency’s 2016 opioid guideline does not endorse rapid tapering or discontinuation of opioid therapy. The CDC was responding to mounting criticism that its controversial guideline was causing harm to patients, including uncontrolled pain, depression and suicide.

As a Canadian, I am envious and embarrassed, for it is not over for pain patients in Canada. Americans have had active advocates in the American Medical Association and hundreds of doctors signing a public letter of protest, which resulted in the CDC and Food and Drug Administration finally admitting that forcing people to go off opiates is not good practice.

Canadian docs have said little about this, so I decided to ask the main authors of Canada’s opioid guideline, which is pretty much a copy of the CDC’s. They had written in response to me last year in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that they had “concerns” about inappropriate tapering and would “monitor the emerging literature.” Only one replied to me this time, saying that they speak out whenever they can, but no one will listen to them.

One anonymous doctor going by the name of “doc2help” objected to a piece I did in Medium suggesting that Canadian doctors have lost their moral compass. He thinks I am ill informed and doing damage.

I also let the office of the Canadian Minister of Health know what the CDC and FDA have done, as Health Canada has the same regulatory powers for drug approvals as the FDA. The answer was that they are having internal discussions.

Meetings and discussions make the bureaucracy go round-and-round. The Minister of Health did recently announce the formation of a chronic pain task force, but it has a three year time frame for more meetings.

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It is so much easier to blame patients and opioid prescribing, as Canadian authorities continue to do, even when most drug overdoses are the result of illicit fentanyl, not prescription opioids.

In Hamilton, Ontario, a medium sized city southwest of Toronto, opioid deaths are going up, while prescriptions are going down. Much of the illicit drugs in that city are due to pharmacy diversion, according to an excellent article in the Hamilton Spectator that revealed vast amounts of prescription drugs are making it onto our streets.

So far, 15 pharmacists have been caught peddling opioids illegally and Health Canada has found that over 1,400 Ontario pharmacies have reported missing drugs that they cannot account for. 

Dr. Anne Holbrook, director of clinical pharmacology at McMaster University, suggested it is patients who are selling their prescriptions on the street, but provided no studies to back up that claim when she spoke to the Spectator reporter. I have asked her directly and via the media relations department at McMaster University, but did not get a reply.  

Blaming patients is easy when you do not want to confront the fact that most street drugs are coming into the country illegally or being diverted by pharmacies.

A Toronto Star investigation found one Ottawa pharmacy that was responsible for putting at least 5,000 fentanyl patches on the street. The investigation found that between 2013 and 2017, nearly 3.5 million doses of prescription drugs disappeared from Ontario pharmacies. Over 200 Ontario pharmacists were disciplined by their professional body for diverting “massive amounts of deadly opioids.”

Our governments are ignoring all of this and blaming the poor chronic pain patients. Those of us in Canada will have to wait while the bureaucrats hold meetings and write papers before anything will be done.

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Marvin Ross is a medical writer and publisher in Dundas, Ontario. He has been writing on chronic pain for the past year and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Canada Forms Chronic Pain Task Force

By Marvin Ross

Canadian chronic pain patients were given a glimmer of hope this week when federal health minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor announced the establishment of a national task force to examine how to prevent and manage chronic pain and remove barriers to pain treatment.

“This is the first step in addressing the issue of chronic pain in this country,” Ginette Petitpas Taylor said at the annual meeting of the Canadian Pain Society in Toronto. “We have to recognize that Canada’s a big country and we certainly know there’s inconsistent services in provinces and territories, so I have to really have a good understanding of what’s available and what’s happening out there.”

One in five Canadians lives with chronic pain and -- like their counterparts in the U.S. – many have been on the receiving end of the crackdown on opiates.

After the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its 2016 opioid guideline, Canada followed with its own very similar set of recommendations, which were developed by a panel at McMaster University chaired by lead investigator Dr. Jason Busse, a chiropractor.

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Although the guidelines are voluntary, medical regulatory colleges across Canada have been pressuring their physician members to drastically reduce opioid prescribing and many doctors now fear for their licenses if they don’t comply.

Petitpas Taylor acknowledged that Canada’s response to the overdose crisis contributed to “stigmatizing attitudes and behaviours” about opioids and created barriers “that may prevent people with chronic pain from receiving the health services they need.”

She said the task force will consult with governments and advocacy groups, and provide an initial report to Health Canada in June, followed by two more in 2020 and 2021.

The panel has two co-chairs. Dr. Fiona Campbell is a pediatric anesthesiologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Anaesthesia & Pain Medicine at the University of Toronto. The other co-chair is Maria Hudspith, who is the Executive Director of Pain BC, a non-profit charity working to improve the lives of people in pain.

Both co-chairs have been on the syndicated Roy Green Show discussing the increasing problems faced by pain patients. In 2017, Campbell told Green that patients who need opiates should not be marginalized and that opiates should be used when all other treatment modalities have failed. Hudspith was a guest on the Green show last year and is well aware that patients have been forcibly tapered or cut off from opioids and often have problems finding care.

That gives me some hope, as does the fact that the other six members of the task force are a combination of medical specialists and pain patients themselves. But not everyone is pleased with the appointments or that the panel’s work will take up to three years.

“Of course, we are happy they are actually acknowledging chronic pain is an issue. However, the time frame is wrong and a little bit too late. We are also quite disappointed in the individuals who have been chosen to lead this task force,” said Barry Ulmer of the Chronic Pain Association of Canada. “Although we were consulted to a degree, it seems our voices were not heard to any large extent.” 

"My colleagues and I provided a list of names of pain physicians who have decades worth of practical experience and have worked diligently to hone their knowledge and skills. We were extremely disappointed not to see a single name from this list appointed to the task force,” said Ann Marie Gaudon, a social worker, pain patient and PNN columnist. 

“Additionally, while we appreciate the Minister's efforts in setting up this task force, solutions must be found now or there will be more deaths and increasing needless suffering. These severely pained and severely stigmatized patients who have been forced off of necessary medications just do not have three years to wait for more information that we already have. There is an extreme urgency here that is not being addressed as such."

Chronic pain in Canada costs up to $60 billion per year in direct health care costs and lost productivity due to job loss and sick days. 

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Marvin Ross is a medical writer and publisher in Dundas, Ontario. He has been writing on chronic pain for the past year and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Living in the Real World of Pain Care

By Ann Marie Gaudon, PNN Columnist

For years now, chronic pain patients in Canada and elsewhere have heard nothing but disingenuous and downright nonsensical information about opioid medication.

It’s beginning to feel like a cheese grater scraping on my very real nerves. No facts or just wrong facts from the government, regulators and the media. Are all of these players living in an alternate reality?

Rewind back to June 2, when pain patient and advocate Paul arranged a meeting between several physicians and pain patients. You can find out the whole story, as Paul told it to me, on this YouTube video. The sole doctor attending the meeting had one objective: To present (via PowerPoint no less) how “responsible and non-biased” leaders and physicians are when it comes to pain patients.

Indeed, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario put out “A Message to Patients Living with Chronic Non-Cancer Pain.” It tells us it is never appropriate to abandon a patient on long-term opioid therapy or abruptly cut off or threaten to cut off a patient’s medication” and that “patients taking prescribed opioids should not be stigmatized.”

In its guideline for accepting new patients, the college also tells us that “physicians must accept new patients in a manner that is fair, transparent and respectful…”

However, doctors live in their own reality, far apart from their college. In the real world of pain care where I reside, doctors everywhere and every day: 

  • Refuse to prescribe opioid medication for their patients

  • Abandon pain patients altogether because they need opioid medication

  • Drastically taper opioid medication against their patients’ wills and to the detriment of their health and quality of life

  • Stigmatize and discriminate against patients, who are labeled as addicted and in need of treatment

  • Refuse to accept new pain patients if they need opioid medication 

This picture of a doctor's window in Ontario reflects that reality:

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What we experience in the real world doesn’t have any relation to what we are being told. I recently listened to a fascinating interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Christopher Hedges, who spoke about a “post-truth phenomena.”

“The facts don’t matter, we’re bombarded with lies…. Once facts are interchangeable with opinions, then it becomes an Alice in Wonderland kind of experience where nothing makes sense,” said Hedges

We are now living that experience, complete with mythology. The myth about pain patients is that they are cared for by an ethical medical establishment according to their own unique needs, and also recognized as valuable citizens deserving of human rights by a responsible government.

Mythologies were created by ancient peoples trying to make sense of the world. If you live in an alternate reality, you would need to create these narratives so that your distorted reality made sense to you.

For those of us whose bodies are pained and whose minds remain firmly planted on this earth, the myths about opioids are misrepresentations at best, pure hypocrisy and deceit at worst.

Sometimes peoples of the past got it wrong, but sometimes they got it right. Seventeenth century philosophers used the fundamental nature of knowledge and their reality to make sense of the world. Voltaire cautioned us not to take the myths too seriously.

"Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities."

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for 33 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Recall of High Dose Opioids Proposed in Canada

Marvin Ross, Guest Columnist

A citizen’s petition filed last year by Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) and other anti-opioid activists tried to get the FDA to ban high-dose opioid medications. Although the FDA has yet to decide on the petition’s merits, the very same proposal is now being made in Canada in an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

Dr. David Juurlink, a Toronto physician and board member of PROP, penned the editorial with Matthew Herder, a lawyer from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. They claim that high dose pills – such as those containing 100mg of morphine or 80mg of oxycodone -- are too risky and should be pulled off the market.

"There is little sign that the (opioid) crisis is abating in Canada," they wrote. "Ministerial recall of the most hazardous opioid formulations is a powerful regulatory tool that should be deployed to address one aspect of the crisis: the excessive prescribing of opioids for chronic pain."

Juurlink and Herder point to Vanessa's Law, which empowers the Canadian Minister of Health to recall drugs from the marketplace when they pose “a serious or imminent risk of injury to health.”

Vanessa's Law was introduced into Parliament in 2014 by Trevor Young, a government member, when his 15-year-old daughter tragically died from heart failure after taking a stomach drug called Prepulsid (Cisapride). That same year, Health Canada removed the drug, as did the EU and the UK. It is only available in the U.S. under special conditions.

Health Canada has always had the power to pull drugs off the market and issue safety alerts. As for Vanessa’s Law, Health Canada told me it “has not encountered a situation where it has been necessary to use its authority to order a mandatory recall.”

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Obviously, there have been no valid safety reasons to limit high dose opioid prescriptions or it would have been done by now.

The CMAJ editorial claims that high dose opioids are potentially dangerous and that they increase the risk of accidental overdose, falls, fractures, cognitive impairment, worsening pain, motor vehicle accidents, and dependence. Of the five academic papers cited as evidence, four are authored by Juurlink himself or his research colleague at the Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Studies in Toronto. One of their papers was reported by this author in PNN as being erroneous and in need of correction. It was corrected, but it should have been retracted.

When the FDA sought public input into PROP’s petition, it received opposition from hundreds of patients and such groups as the American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM), the American Medical Association, the American Society of Anesthesiologists, and the American Pain Society. The AAPM said several of the petition’s underlying premises “are either false, misleading or speculative.”

“Perhaps the most serious problem with the petition is its cavalier assumption that in those patients in whom high doses are required, the change would be ‘unlikely to result in a significant inconvenience or hardship.’ Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is undisputed that many end-of-life patients require and benefit from opioid doses that are often quite high,” the AAPM said.

Other critics pointed out that taking high dose pills off the market would result in more lower dose pills being prescribed and stored in medicine cabinets, where they could potentially be stolen or diverted. It also raises the risk of a patient taking too many or too few low dose pills to get pain relief.

Dr. Juurlink has previously claimed that the long-term use of opioids results in an increase in pain called opioid induced hyperalgesia (OIH). He wrote about hyperalgesia in an earlier article in CMAJ, saying pain patients may think opioids are helping them, when they’re not.

“Why might some of these patients not be doing as well as they or their doctors perceive?” Dr. Juurlink asked.

Well, the answer is that Dr. Juurlink knows better. He knows better than the patient and he knows better than their doctor. He knows that they are not doing well. What can anyone say to that level of arrogance?

I did write a reply to his arguments in CMAJ and pointed out that his concept of hyperalgesia is simply a theoretical construct with no solid evidence in the research literature.

It is truly unfortunate and criminal that the response from some “experts” and politicians to the rising deaths we are seeing from overdoses is directed at pain doctors and their patients, when there is little evidence they are the main cause of the opioid problem.

As I pointed out in my last PNN article, the Minister of Health continues to blame the wrong people and is incapable of providing any evidence for her position. The coroner in British Columbia has already put out data on the source of opioids involved in overdose deaths. Fentanyl was involved in 3 out of 4 deaths and its source was illegal, not prescribed.

A very recent investigation by Global News Network in Canada found that the smuggling of illicit fentanyl into Canada via BC is the responsibility of a Chinese gang called the Big Circle Boys. The billions of dollars of profits they make is laundered through casinos in that province and to buy property in Vancouver. The police are aware but simply do not have the resources to counter any of this.

Instead, officials go after doctors and patients. One pain patient I am in contact with just e-mailed me that his doctor continues to reduce his opioids to the point that he is ready to leave this world.

“I can’t understand the thought process of my pain doctor who continues to taper away at my meds,” he wrote.

And neither can I.

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Marvin Ross is a medical writer and publisher in Dundas, Ontario. He has been writing on chronic pain for the past year and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Ignoring the Evidence in Canada

By Marvin Ross, Guest Columnist

For those of us north of the border who are defending against the assault on pain patients, it was very gratifying to see the American Medical Association come out against the “inappropriate use” of the CDC guideline on opioid prescribing.

Sadly, we cannot hope that the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) will do the same. The CMA embraced the Canadian guideline – which is modeled after the CDC’s -- and argued for better evidence on the safety and efficacy of prescription opioids.

Sadly, how Canadian officials evaluate evidence is suspect. Jason Busse, the chiropractor who chaired the Canadian guideline, contends that no randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have been done on opioids that follow patients for longer than six months. He tweeted that to me after I challenged him on the results of an analysis that concluded that “to dismiss trials as ‘inadequate’ if their observation period is a year or less is inconsistent with current regulatory standards.”

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I pointed out that multiple published studies and over 1.6 million patients maintained on doses over 200mg MME (morphine milligram equivalent) disprove his claim opioids don’t work long term.

Busse’s reply was, “Yes - the CDC guideline excluded all trials of less than 1 year duration. The Canadian guideline did not. Nonetheless, there are no RCTs of opioids that follow pts. For more than 6 months.”

He did not reply to my comment that Prozac was approved for use based on trails of only 12 weeks duration and that many patients take anti-depressants for years. It has always seemed strange to me that McMaster University, which led the development of the Canadian guideline, is the home to evidence based medicine. One of the co-ordinators of the guideline is Dr. Gordon Guyatt, who is credited as the one who brought evidence based studies to the world.

The most flagrant avoidance of evidence is by Health Canada, which continues to insist that high rates of opioid prescribing is one of the main causes of the opioid crisis. Ann Marie Gaudon, a columnist for PNN, has been attempting to find out what evidence Health Canada has to make that claim.

Not only have they not responded to her query, but her call to their office at the end of October resulted in one of the most bizarre phone calls ever heard. Syndicated radio show host Roy Green devoted two episodes to what can only be described as a “Who's on First” discussion with a government official.

Health Canada now mandates that every prescription issued for an opioid carry a sticker and a leaflet warning of addiction risks. A total wasted effort. The evidence that prescriptions opioids are a significant part of the problem is lacking.

The Ontario Drug Policy Research Network just released a database that disproves claims that prescriptions are a major cause of opioid overdoses. It shows that opioid prescriptions in Ontario have been declining for years, as they have in the United States.  About two-thirds of the opioid prescriptions written in 2015 were for patients over the age of 45 and less than 2 percent were for fentanyl.

Contrast those stats to information put out by this same agency on opioid deaths. Accidental overdoses among those 15 to 44 accounted for nearly 60% of opioid deaths. And the most common opioid involved in overdoses was fentanyl – most of it illicit and obtained on the black market.

It would be very refreshing if governments and regulators in Canada actually looked at their own data before cracking down on prescriptions for legitimate pain sufferers. That may be too much to expect, but one can always hope.

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Marvin Ross is a medical writer and publisher in Dundas, Ontario. He has been writing on chronic pain for the past year and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

UK and Canada Legalizing Cannabis

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

There’s a lot of hype this week about Canada becoming the second and largest country to legalize recreational marijuana. The first was Uruguay.

But the bigger news for the pain community may be in the United Kingdom, which has some of the strictest marijuana laws in Europe. Home Secretary Sajid Javid made a surprise announcement last week that medical cannabis products would be rescheduled on November 1 and become available by prescription to treat chronic pain, epilepsy and chemotherapy-induced nausea.

Javid agreed to review the scheduling of medical cannabis in June, after a public outcry over the seizure of CBD oil flown into Heathrow Airport for a 12-year old boy who has epilepsy. Although the oil primarily contained cannabidiol – the non-psychoactive ingredient in marijuana – it was still technically illegal under UK drug laws.

“I stressed the importance of acting swiftly to ensure that where medically appropriate, these products could be available to be prescribed to patients,” Javid said in a statement.

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“I have been clear that this should be achieved at the earliest opportunity whilst ensuring that the appropriate safeguards were in place to minimise the risks of misuse and diversion.”

Javid was also clear he has no intention of supporting the legalization of recreational marijuana in the UK. Smoking cannabis in any form will also remain illegal. Even so, it was a big step forward for marijuana supporters..  

“This is a major victory for our campaign and will mean a lot of people will have a much better quality of life,” Clark French, a multiple sclerosis patient and cannabis activist, told Leafly.

“It does look that this could be the most open, accessible medical cannabis policy in Europe, if they get it right and we keep guiding them in the right directions,” said Jon Liebling of United Patients Alliance, a medical marijuana advocacy group.    

The rollout of CBD-based medicines in the UK will go slowly. It could take up to a year before the National Health Service comes up with guidelines to govern the distribution of CBD-based products. Initially, only medical specialists will be allowed to prescribe cannabis, although the guidelines are expected to eventually include general practitioners.

Activists are urging the Home Office to allow medical cannabis for all patients, not just those with pain, epilepsy or nausea.

“We do believe that everybody should have access,” said Liebling. "When you're talking about cannabis as a medicine, you really do have to compare the risks associated with cannabis that we're aware of versus the risks of those drugs that patients are already taking.” 

Legalization Worries Canadian Medical Association

Medical cannabis has been legal in Canada since 2001 and about 330,000 Canadians are registered and already have access to it.  But some health officials are less than enthused about the October 17 legalization of recreational cannabis.

"Given the known and unknown health hazards of cannabis, any increase in use of recreational cannabis after legalization, whether by adults or youth, should be viewed as a failure of this legislation," wrote Dr. Diane Kelsall, interim Editor-in-Chief, in an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Kelsall points to the stampede of Canadian and American companies looking to get into the cannabis industry and predicts many will brazenly advertise their products to young people.

“Cannabis companies may initially focus on attracting current consumers from black-market sources, but eventually, to maintain or increase profits, new markets will be developed as is consistent with the usual behaviour of a for-profit company. Marketing efforts may include encouraging current users to increase their use or enticing a younger demographic. The track record for tobacco producers has not been encouraging in this regard, and it is unlikely that cannabis producers will behave differently,” Kelsall warned.

Kelsall said the Canadian government needs to carefully track cannabis use and should have the courage to amend the law if problems arise.

Why I Am So Ashamed of Canada

By Ann Marie Gaudon, PNN Columnist

As far as countries go, I have lived almost the entirety of my life believing that Canada had a fairly good track record for upholding human rights. Of course, we’re far from perfect, but when I looked around the world I still felt grateful for where I am.

I no longer feel this way. Now I feel a deep shame for Canada and I believe that history will show this era with a rather large black mark etched in its pages.

Unfortunately for all of us, politicians and bureaucrats do not have a great history of getting things right. And they’ve really blown it this time.

We’ve got a real problem. Canadians are dying like never before from a tainted illicit drug supply. These political players never cared about people overdosing until they began dying en masse.

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The government’s answer in the past was to round them up and put them in jail. Yes, punish them for being impoverished, mentally ill, homeless, and victims of sexual and physical violence. Punish them because they were neglected, abused or abandoned and consequently suffer from addictions trying to cope with their miserable lot in life.

Now they are dying from drug overdoses – far too many and far too quickly. The government’s answer: Let’s lock up and throw away the key to the prescription medication cabinet!

Instead of solving one deadly drug problem, now we have two.

Logic would dictate to policy makers that to solve the overdose problem, one should go straight to other countries such as Portugal that have done a good job of saving lives. Yet what have they done in Canada? They’ve jumped on the frenzied, anti-opiate, lunatic fringe bandwagon. Instead of listening to progressive professionals and those suffering from addiction, they are hell-bent on blaming pain patients and their medications.

Has this helped? Well, as prescriptions continue to decrease, and pain patients suffer more and sometimes die, overdose deaths continue to soar.

I invite you to join me in my personal attempt to spread awareness about the worsening plight of the severely pained in Canada. It isn’t a pretty story, but it’s one that has to be told.

I’ve created four informative videos and uploaded them to YouTube. My personal story is the first video and also includes the state of chronic pain in Canada in 2018. In the second video, I interview my friend Beth who had unethical medical treatment forced upon her. It is incredulous what the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons (CPSO) has done to Beth – and they accept responsibility for nothing at all.

Beth tells her story below:

Next up is Dan, who has been a chronic pain patient stable on pain medications for over 20 years. He is no longer stable. The CPSO terrified his doctor, who in turn forced Dan to decrease his medications. Dan is not doing well as a result.

Finally, Paul explains how he organized a town hall meeting between framers of the 2017 Canadian opioid guidelines, a representative of the CPSO and a few others. These folks were to be “silent attendees” and listen to severe chronic pain patients tell them how enforcing the new guidelines has negatively impacted their health and lives. The whole idea was admirable, but Paul ultimately learned the hard way that the lives of severely pained patients don’t seem to matter at all to the people who decided these issues for us.

So now you have an idea of why I am so ashamed of Canada. I would love it if you would listen to these stories and spread them far and wide. People need to know what’s going on here. I would also appreciate your comments. Let’s stick together, there’s always strength in numbers.

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for 33 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Studies Warn of Pregabalin Deaths

By Pat Anson, Editor

Two new studies – one in Canada and one in Australia – should give pause to patients who use opioids and pregabalin (Lyrica), an anticonvulsant medication increasingly prescribed for fibromyalgia, neuropathy and other chronic pain conditions. Both studies found a number of overdose deaths that involve – but were not necessarily caused -- by pregabalin.

The Canadian study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, looked at over 1,400 patients in Ontario on opioid medication from 1997 to 2016 who died from opioid-related causes. Another group of over 5,000 surviving opioid patients was used as a control group.

Researchers found that patients who were co-prescribed opioids and pregabalin had a significantly higher risk of an overdose.

The risk of death was over two times higher for patients receiving opioids and a high dose of pregabalin (over 300mg) compared to those who took opioids alone.

Patients on a low or moderate dose of pregabalin also had a heightened risk, although not as large.

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Researchers say pregabalin has a sedative effect and may interact with opioids in ways that increase respiratory depression. Few doctors and patients are aware of the risk, even though over half of Ontario residents who begin pregabalin therapy are also prescribed an opioid.

"There is an important drug interaction between opioids and pregabalin that can lead to increased risk of fatal overdose, particularly at high doses of pregabalin," lead author Tara Gomes, PhD, of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) and St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, told MedPage Today.

"Clinicians should consider carefully whether to prescribe opioids and pregabalin together. If they decide that both medications are clinically appropriate, they should start with low doses and monitor their patients closely."

Lyrica (pregabalin) and Neurontin (gabapentin) are both made by Pfizer and belong to a class of anticonvulsant nerve medication called gabapentinoids. Sales of gabapentinoids have tripled in recent years, in part because of CDC prescribing guidelines that recommend the drugs as alternatives to opioid medication.  

U.S. health officials have only recently started looking into the misuse and abuse of gabapentinoids, which are increasingly used by addicts to enhance the euphoric effects of heroin and other illicit opioids. While gabapentin  has a warning label cautioning users who take the drug with opioids, there is no similar warning for pregabalin.

“Although current product monographs for gabapentin contain warnings about serious adverse events when this agent is combined with opioids, those for pregabalin do not. The importance of our finding warrants a revision of the pregabalin product monographs,” wrote Gomes.

Pregabalin Abuse in Australia

Health officials in Australia are also concerned about the growing use of pregabalin.  Researchers at the NSW Poisons Information Centre say poisoning cases involving pregabalin rose from zero in 2005 to 376 cases in 2016.

“Our study shows a clear correlation between the rapid and continuous rise of pregabalin dispensing and an increase in intentional poisonings and deaths associated with pregabalin,” said lead author Dr. Rose Cairns, a specialist at the NSW Poisons Information Centre.

According to the Australian Journal of Pharmacy (AJP), there have been 88 recorded deaths associated with pregabalin in recent years. Most of the deaths involved young, unemployed males who had a history of substance abuse, particularly with opioids, benzodiazepines, alcohol and illicit drugs.

“We believe that Australian doctors may not be aware of the abuse potential of pregabalin,” Cairns said. “Most patients who are prescribed this medication are in the older population but the group who are at high risk of overdosing are much younger. These people are likely to have been prescribed pregabalin despite having a history of substance abuse.”

According to researchers, up to two-thirds of people who intentionally misused pregabalin had a prior documented substance abuse history. “Prescribers need to consider this growing body of evidence that pregabalin has abuse potential before prescribing, especially to patients with substance abuse history,” said Cairns.

Pfizer did not respond to a request for comment on the Canadian and Australian studies.

When Will They Start Listening to Pain Patients?

By Ann Marie Gaudon, PNN Columnist

It’s often suggested that pain patients and their advocates write or call elected officials, government regulators and physicians’ organizations to protest the sorry state of pain care in the U.S. and Canada. Many of us do just that and wind up feeling ignored or dismissed.

I have now corresponded with two different physicians at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO), only to be passed onto their “Director of Strategy” (a fancy pants title no less).

The CPSO is the body which governs physicians in Ontario and it has rigidly enforced Canada’s 2017 guideline for opioids. They have monitored patient files, hauled over 80 doctors in to investigate “overprescribing” and basically terrorized doctors for prescribing opioids.

The doctors in turn deny and restrict opioid medications to their patients out of fear for losing their licenses.

I have asked the CPSO these questions:

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  • What evidence do you have to indicate the long-term use of opioids increases pain?
  • Why is the chronic pain population being penalized for overdose deaths due to illicit street drugs?
  • Why are you not listening to chronic pain researchers, physicians and patients?
  • Does a decrease in opioid prescriptions and an increase in overdose deaths suggest a statistically significant relationship?
  • How is it ever acceptable for pain patients to be dictated to by non-pain specialists?

I have provided no less than 27 references to show that there was never a connection between chronic pain patients and those dying from overdoses. However, no one has provided me with answers to my questions -- not even fancy pants.  In fact, the CPSO continues to disseminate disingenuous information about pain management, opioids, addiction and overdoses.

And remember folks, these are the people who took an oath to care for the suffering. That would include all of us pain patients -- or one would think. To put out genuine effort and have nothing but deaf ears returned is sickening -- pun intended.

Health Canada also hasn’t answered my questions and continues to make baseless claims such as "high rates of opioid prescriptions are a contributing factor to Canada's opioid crisis." Predictably, when the media hears that, they rush to publish the news that Health Canada plans to “severely restrict marketing of opioids” -- as if that will have any effect on those dying from overdoses. It will not. The non-pained public laps it up.

I also wrote to my representatives in Parliament. MPP Michael Harris did not respond in any way. MP Marwan Tabbara responded with a boilerplate letter about the opioid crisis, yet when I asked for a purposeful response, none was forthcoming.

Dr. Helena Jaczek, Ontario’s Minister of Health, did not address my concerns either. A representative of Health Quality Ontario did respond to me quickly, yet when I replied with additional concerns, I had no further correspondence.

I’m aware that our friends in the U.S. are certainly not being heard either. Scores of you sent letters and emails commenting on the open letter that desperate pain sufferer Charles Malinowski sent to California Sen. Kamala Harris, who replied with a boilerplate letter filled with hype and hysteria about opioids and how more funding was needed to treat addiction.

Another example is when over 100 comments were submitted to the DEA asking it not to cut the supply of opioid medication because it could lead to shortages and worsen the quality of pain care. The DEA’s response? The agency said the comments dealt with medical issues that were “outside of the scope” of its order. Then it cut the supply anyway.

A genuine letter is sent and verbal diarrhea is returned. I can assure you that this phenomenon is not just “Made in America.” 

If you’ve written or tried to be heard and have gotten nowhere, that is no reason to stop trying to hold governments and physician groups accountable for their shameful disregard for pain patients. We have just had a shakeup in Ontario’s government, so it's all new players now. Will they help? I intend to find out.

Who is with me? More than ever pain patients and advocates need to stick together, focus and move toward effective change. Don’t make quitting an option. If you live in Canada and are a pain patient having unethical treatment forced upon you, please join us at this Facebook page. 

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for 33 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.