Alberta's recreational pot-shop rules a pain in the bud, industry insider says

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Consumers in recreational industry must do own research into medical cannabis remedies.

Albertans hoping to learn whether or not cannabis could help their aches and pains won't get any answers from employees at recreational retail cannabis stores.

Once cannabis is legalized, pot shop employees will not be allowed to give medical advice or guidance to consumers. If consumers ask which strain of cannabis might be best to manage arthritis pain, for example, employees must refer them to their doctors or other health-care practitioners.

The guidelines are part of the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission's SellSafe cannabis staff training, a mandatory program for anyone who plans to work in the recreational cannabis industry.

The rule creates an unfortunate separation between the medical and recreational cannabis worlds, an industry professional says, one that could prove confusing and frustrating, especially for older consumers who don't know much about cannabis but want to easily access the drug for pain and other health issues.

"The only other option is to go through the medical system, which is very fearful for a lot of 50-plus people," said Lana Syms, a self-employed retail consultant in the medical cannabis industry.

"They're not aware of the ease of which you can get a medical prescription now and they've just been waiting for recreational to happen. And now it's happening without any support for the medical needs of the people.

"There's going to be a huge gap in what the people are expecting and what they're hoping for, and what's actually going to come out."

There's going to be a huge gap in what the people are expecting and what they're hoping for, and what's actually going to come out.- Lana Syms , retail consultant

Syms, 52, has completed AGLC's SellSafe program and applied for its qualified cannabis worker certification. She has five years of experience managing an Alberta head shop, is currently enrolled in a management program with Athabasca University and intends to work as an agent in the legalized cannabis industry. 

She said she expects the recreational industry will attract baby boomers. They'll be looking to treat pain or other medical issues with cannabis, but may be overwhelmed with misinformation. Still, they might not go to their doctors with questions because they won't want them to know they're interested in trying it, or won't want any mention of it on their medical records.

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"They're scared, they're fearful and now they're not even going to be able to walk into this recreational model that's being created in Alberta and ask any questions whatsoever," Syms said.

Onus on consumer to do research

AGLC spokeswoman Heather Holmen said employees in retail cannabis stores likely would be familiar with different strains and products.

But asking detailed questions to anyone but a medical professional would be like going into a drugstore and asking the cashier what type of Tylenol would be best for headaches or chronic back pain, rather than asking a pharmacist, she said.

Health Canada has a guideline to help consumers make informed decisions on using cannabis for medical purposes. Other resources to educate consumers are still in development, Holmen said. 

"It's with the best intention of the customer that's coming in that they get that advice from someone who is aware of all the side-effects and possible implications, if there are any at all," Holmen said.

"It may be a family doctor, it may be a naturopath, it may be a medical cannabis practitioner that would be able to provide that advice."

But not every physician in Alberta will be able to give comprehensive cannabis advice.

In Alberta, more than 300 doctors have registered as being authorizers of cannabis with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta. That allows them to prescribe cannabis, said spokesman Steve Buick.

Specific questions, such as which strains are best for specific medical issues, are best directed at one of those physicians, he said.

But the research into cannabis use for clinical and medical purposes is limited, Buick said. Because of that, doctors will have a wide range of views. Many will say they don't have strong opinions on using cannabis for treating medical issues because of the lack of research.

"There's no onus on a physician to magically know everything worth telling you about every consumer product out there that could possibly be recommended for health," he said.

"As the evidence base grows, then naturally physicians should have more to say about it. That's just how medicine works."

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