Patients will start turning up in emergency departments demanding medical marijuana if they cannot find a physician to prescribe it, warns the head of the Canadian Medical Association, as doctors struggle with their role as gatekeepers of a drug that remains untested and unregulated.

The federal government’s new medical marijuana regime is “awkward” and “strains the patient-doctor relationship,” CMA head Dr. Louis Hugo Francescutti told reporters Monday during the group’s annual conference in Ottawa.

Doctors are being asked to prescribe a medication that has not been put through the rigorous testing process that all other medications on the market are subject to, he said.

“It’s just bad medicine to be asked to authorize a product that we don’t know how it works, we don’t know when it works, for who it works,” Francescutti said. “Where are the studies? We try to base what we do on evidence.”

The federal government overhauled Canada’s medical marijuana system earlier this year. New regulations require that patients ask their doctor for a prescription, which they submit to a federally licenced grower. Previously, patients received authorization from Health Canada to produce or obtain their own.

Under the new system, patients who insist they need medical marijuana to alleviate pain or other symptoms will bounce from physician to physician looking for a prescription, he warned. And, if they cannot find one, they will end up in the emergency department as a last resort.

An emergency room physician does not have the time to get to know a patient, find out his or her full medical history, and quickly decide whether medical marijuana should be prescribed, Francescutti said.

“How can I just meet someone and practice good medicine?” he said.

Doctors are facing pressure from patients who insist it helps them, from a burgeoning medical marijuana industry that is making “outrageous claims” about the benefits of marijuana, and a regime that calls on doctors to “blindfoldly” prescribe a medication.

“If you combine all those things together, you couldn’t get a better plot for a movie than this one,” he said.

Earlier Monday, Health Minister Rona Ambrose said doctors are not required to prescribe medical marijuana.

“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,” Ambrose told reporters Monday morning after addressing the CMA conference.

“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 amount of marijuana being authorized for patients’ use has dropped considerably since responsibility was shifted from Health Canada staffers to doctors, Ambrose added. 

Physicians attending the conference were scheduled to hear from various stakeholders about medical marijuana at a Monday afternoon session.

Issues that most concern physicians in addition to a lack of testing, according to Francescutti, include finding a way to prescribe it other than as a drug to smoke.

“If we could deliver it through a cookie or a milkshake or a pill or a liquid, and we know that it works, well we would welcome it with open arms because it’s another tool we can use,” he said.

Meanwhile, Francescutti clarified the CMA’s reasoning for declining to participate in a series of taxpayer-funded anti-marijuana advertisements put out by Health Canada.

The CMA, in conjunction with the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, released a statement over the weekend saying that they had been invited to put their logos on the ads, but will not because the campaign has become “a political football.”

"We did not, and do not, support or endorse any political messaging or political advertising on this issue,” the statement said.

Last week, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said the campaign was an attack on his marijuana policies.

“It’s become increasingly clear the government is very ready to use taxpayer dollars for partisan gains," Trudeau said in Winnipeg Friday.

On Monday, Ambrose denied that charge, saying that the campaign “is a sound public health policy backed by science.”

She added: “Telling kids to not smoke pot is not a partisan attack on Justin Trudeau by Health Canada.”

On Monday, Francescutti said the CMA had never agreed to be part of the Health Canada campaign, and declined to participate after viewing the material because it did not appear to be based on the current literature on marijuana.

“The campaign unfortunately took a twist that looked a little political,” Francescutti said, adding that he “heard from members that they did not want to be a part of a campaign like that.”