The path to legalization of cannabis in Canada has been a wild ride. With the initiation of the country’s first (ever!) rules and regulations on how people can lawfully access this plant for both medical and recreational purposes, we are witnessing monumental history in the making.
Simultaneously, as more education reaches the public, people are shifting and expanding their perceptions of cannabis and are understanding this plant in an entirely new light.
In such times of change, a wise woman’s words are more important than ever.
My journey with cannabis has been cushioned by a particularly wise woman: Dr. Biljana Kostovic is a physician who has dedicated part of her practice to guiding and supporting patients through their use of medical cannabis.
She also happens to be my mother.
Her impressive life experience has given her invaluable and clear insights and not much seems to fly under her radar— such as the opportunities that cannabis can lend to her patients’ needs. She has prescribed cannabis for eight years, documenting and analyzing its efficacies and understanding its powerful potential to shift both health and cultural traditions.
In an interview, I had the pleasure of discussing both the history and future of legalized cannabis with this super mom. In high hopes, I present to you a unique perspective of a physician dedicated to the future of her field.
Dr. Biljana Kostovic began her career in medicine in Sarajevo, Bosnia, than she completed her residency in Emergency Medicine in Belgrade, Serbia. She immigrated to Canada with her family in 1997 from Belgrade, Serbia. While learning English, working a full-time job and caring for two children, she managed to ace her exams and become the Emergency Medicine doctor in Saint Stephen, New Brunswick. Toronto became her home in 2010, where she began her journey as a pain specialist and with a special plant that we like to call cannabis.
Let’s start with the basics - what were your earliest memories of cannabis?
When I was in my early twenties, I tried cannabis with my friends–I’ll admit I thought it had a terrible taste. I’m not sure if we even smoked it; I think everyone pretended to be high (laughter). Within a few days, I tried it again and I found it had the same weird flavour— it just didn’t work for me and I concluded that I would be one of those people that couldn’t get into it and never tried it again!
If your personal experience hasn’t been satisfactory, what led you to start prescribing cannabis? What were your motivations?
My patients who were adamant about its effectiveness. It started with a few patients that asked for my guidance to use cannabis for sleep & pain, but then afterwards I discovered that many of my patients were already using it. I did my own research and education and quickly came to the conclusion that it was worth trying.
Did anything stunt this process?
Well, the paperwork was a nightmare, at least back then. It’s a lot easier now. The first licenses were through the government and the paperwork took months. Eventually, I’d receive a reply from a clinic asking how much cannabis per day was needed, which just added more ambiguity because there was virtually no guidance on that. I’m grateful this is changing now!
What have been your primary observations about those that use cannabis medicinally?
There is a huge learning curve. Patients that had previously been exposed to cannabis appear to have an easier time discovering what works best for their health needs. Other patients that didn’t have that previous experience sometimes never got to that point and gave up on cannabis altogether.
One of the biggest struggles was figuring out how to control symptoms in order to use it during the day. But once this was established, I nearly always saw a decrease in antidepressants, anxiolytics and pain medication.
What have been the most valuable things you've learned about cannabis?
Its potential to decrease or stop dependence on opioids with very little side effects.
What have been the most valuable resources that have you taught you about cannabis?
My patients and my kids (smiling).
How do you think access to recreational cannabis will affect the way people use it medicinally? Do you think it’s all the same thing?
Once October 17th arrives and cannabis becomes legal to use for recreational purposes, I think it will still take time for cultural interpretations to fully shift and accept that, whether for medicinal or recreational reasons, cannabis use will be just another legal act; just like it is for any adult to purchase a beer or bottle of wine or when purchasing a legally available sleep aid or painkiller.
Once we learn more about cannabis and it becomes a normalized medication that is devoid of stigma, it will be easier for patients to accept it as a treatment.
Again, the key is to be informed and learn more about the effects of responsible consumption.
If you were going to give tips to your daughter (hello!) on how to recreationally use legal cannabis safely, what would you tell them?
Start low and go slow; try not to smoke; vaporize in the beginning and once you know what you like and what you need, take oils only. If you want to explore legalized cannabis use, avoid mixing with alcohol and ensure you stay hydrated with lots of water. Also, simply put: don’t be dumb— do not operate any motorized vehicles and most of all, make sure you are with people that you can trust.
What piece of advice would you give to people who are looking forward to using cannabis daily for wellness purposes?
The availability of legalized cannabis encourages the importance of responsible consumption. While some may use cannabis for direct medical support, regularly using it to “take the edge off,” without understanding why is something worth paying closer attention to; this sort of habit can be no different than using alcohol or any other crutch that can be more rooted in denial and simply trying to adjust your state of reality.
In my opinion, it’s alright to use cannabis recreationally, so long as you are aware of its effects and clearly understand the reasons for why you are using it. Intentional use of legalized cannabis is far healthier; being in the moment to directly work on your issues is the best way to take care of yourself.
What do you look forward to seeing in the legalization-era?
For people to be able to comfortably use cannabis at work to support their medical needs. And in addition, to hopefully decrease the amount of (over)use of anxiolytics and antidepressants.
Thanks for sharing Mom!
Written by Katarina Kostovic
Katarina Kostovic began her journey with cannabis in her second year of university where she was given an assignment to teach a seminar on two conflicting substances: cannabis and opioids. After researching and comparing the two, she developed an interest and diving deeper into cannabis due to the wide range of potential solutions that it may provide for prolonged opioid use. She began working in the cannabis industry for GrowWise Health, a cannabis education company, where she helped develop their educational materials and understanding of the plant. She now works as a writer and cannabis educator for HIKU Brands.
Van der Pop does not condone or endorse the illegal consumption of cannabis. This article is not meant as medical advice. Prior to using cannabis for medical purposes, please consult your physician.