OTTAWA – Health Minister Rona Ambrose is denying that the federal government’s proposed marijuana awareness campaign is aimed at Justin Trudeau.
“Telling kids to not smoke pot is not a partisan attack on Justin Trudeau by Health Canada,” Ambrose told a news conference Monday on the sidelines of the annual Canadian Medical Association meeting.
“It is a sound public health policy backed by science. Whether pot is legal or illegal, the health risks of marijuana to youth remain the same, and we should all be concerned about them.”
It was Trudeau who “made this a political issue,” Ambrose said, noting the CMA itself had asked for a marijuana awareness campaign, and Ottawa simply responded to that call.
The Liberal leader lashed out at Conservatives last week over reports that Health Canada has approached three doctors’ groups to sign onto an anti-pot advertising campaign directed at youth.
All three — the CMA, the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada — have declined to participate, saying the campaign has become a “political football.”
It’s not the first Health Canada marijuana awareness campaign aimed at young Canadians. The so-called Drugs Not 4 Me campaign launched in December 2007 and wrapped up in 2012.
Trudeau, however, has suggested the Health Canada move was meant as an attack on his support for legalizing marijuana. The proposed campaign came on the heels of several Conservative cabinet ministers, including Peter MacKay and Julian Fantino, publicly maligning Trudeau’s stance.
“We know that Canadian taxpayers are getting extremely frustrated with the fact this government tends to use public money for ads that do more for its partisan aims than for actual public service,” Trudeau said.
The health minister also weighed in Monday on the heated debate over medical marijuana, saying Canada’s doctors should not feel pressured into prescribing it.
“Health Canada does not endorse the use of marijuana, nor is it an approved drug in this country, nor has it gone through any of the clinical trials that other pharmaceutical products that are approved in this country have gone through,” she said.
“The majority of the physician community do not want to prescribe it; they don’t want to be put in a situation where they’re pressured to prescribe it and I encourage them to not prescribe it if they’re not comfortable with it.”
The CMA has said Canadian doctors are in a “untenable” position on medical marijuana. Louis Hugo Francescutti, the organization’s outgoing president, suggested recently that many people seeking medical weed are simply looking to get legally high.
On Monday, Francescutti said marijuana has not been subjected to the same type of clinical trials that every other drug has. That’s a state of affairs that makes doctors uncomfortable, he added.
“Any physician worth their salt wants to know that if they’re prescribing 81 milligrams of aspirin, they’re getting 81 milligrams of aspirin … and we know the benefits and we know the side effects,” he said, calling for accelerated studies into medical marijuana.
“We’re nowhere near that with marijuana.”
Elsewhere on the painkiller front, Ambrose announced that the federal government is putting stronger warning labels on extended-release painkillers like OxyContin in an effort to prevent the abuse of opioids.
“Too many people are abusing prescription drugs,” Ambrose said in a speech to the conference earlier Monday. “Too many people are suffering and dying as a result.”
The new labels emphasize the risks and safety concerns associated with the drugs. They also remove reference to “moderate” pain to clarify opioids should only be used to manage severe pain.
Canada is the second-largest per capita consumer of prescription opioids in the world, behind the United States.
A 2012 study suggests that close to a million young Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24 reported using prescription drugs in the previous 12 months.
The Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey also found that 410,000 Canadians said they’d abused prescription drugs like opioid pain relievers, including Demorol and OxyContin; stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall; and tranquilizers and sedatives that include Valium, Ativan and Xanax.
A year ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced safety labelling changes for all extended-release and long-acting opioids intended to treat pain.
David Juurlink, a medical toxicologist at the University of Toronto, said it’s “hard to argue” with label changes but added OxyContin and related drugs should have been restricted to patients in severe pain as soon as they came onto the market.
“It’s not likely to change how doctors prescribe opioids,” he said in an interview. “That horse has bolted.”
Ottawa needs to go much further, Juurlink added.
“What we really need are federal initiatives to quantify the toll of opioid misuse, to properly educate doctors about the risk/benefit profile of opioids and perhaps even federal support for an investigation into how these drugs were marketed in Canada,” he said.
“That’s happening in the United States, and for good reason. Why it’s not happening here, I don’t know.”
Ambrose denied the measures lacked clout.
“Yes, we have work to do with the prescribing community,” she said. “Maybe it won’t stop a doctor from prescribing an opioid, but perhaps someone might read that label and think: ‘Well I don’t have severe pain, why am I being prescribed this?'”
Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25