Alberta finds doctor guilty of professional misconduct over medical cannabis authorizations

| David Brown

A doctor in Alberta has been found guilty of professional misconduct for failing to follow the provincial college of physicians’ standards of practice for authorizing access to cannabis for medical purposes. 

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA) found that Dr. Gaylord Wardell did not follow certain standards the College has in place for authorizing access to medical cannabis for someone. 

Although a four-person CPSA Hearing Tribunal found that several charges against the doctor were not proven, they did find one charge amounted to unprofessional conduct. 

That charge relates to section 4(b) of the CPSA’s Standard of Practice for Cannabis for Medical Purposes which states that a “regulated member completing a patient medical document must at a minimum see the patient every three months following stabilization”.

The Hearing Tribunal held a virtual hearing into the conduct of Dr. Gaylord Wardell on October 13 and 14, 2021. The College has yet to determine the penalty for this professional misconduct. 

Dr. Wardell is a pain specialist who has had a focus on cannabis for medical purposes for many years. The complaint against him was raised after a patient he had authorized to grow their own medical cannabis posted about it on social media. 

The post on social media, notes the CPSA decision, raised concerns about the appropriateness of Dr. Wardell’s authorization of cannabis for medical purposes and his compliance with the relevant Standards of Practice that might apply to this situation. Wardell noted in the hearing that he had allotted extra time to speak to that patient, describing them as “a notorious character” who he wanted to speak with. 

The CPSA decision also notes that Dr. Wardell “is one of a relatively few physicians in Canada who provide authorizations to grow cannabis for medical purposes”.

Health Canada has raised concerns about the high gram-per-day amounts authorized by a handful of doctors in Canada, often several times above the national average of around 2 grams per day. 

Although the average daily prescribed amount of cannabis under the medical cannabis program is about two grams, the average daily amount authorized by health care practitioners for individuals who are registered with Health Canada for personal or designated production was 45.3 grams per day.

An authorization for 45 grams a day would allow someone to grow 219 plants indoors or 86 plants outdoors. 

Health Canada began sharing data on the number of health care practitioners and the daily amounts authorized with the provincial and territorial medical regulatory authorities in May and June 2019.

In Alberta, as with many other provinces, doctors and other medical professionals who authorize cannabis must follow certain protocols that were put in place to maintain the integrity of Canada’s medical cannabis system.

In addition, the CPSA received a letter in 2020 from Health Canada noting that Dr. Wardell “continues to be the highest authorizing physician” for medical cannabis and that the patients involved predominantly lived outside of Alberta.

Physicians in Canada can authorize access to individuals to purchase cannabis for medical purposes through the national medical cannabis program, and can also authorize individuals to grow their own medical cannabis or designate someone to do so for them. 

The number of personal or designated grows has been steadily increasing for years, even as the numbers purchasing cannabis through the medical program has declined. 

In his defence, Dr. Wardell’s representative argued that many of Dr. Wardell’s patients are seeking raw cannabis rather than dried cannabis.