The road to medical freedom is still rocky

By Joy Davies

“Remember me the way I was” is what the note said that the policeman found on Priscilla’s bathroom counter. My God, after 10 years of living with excruciating pain, after 10 years of doctors and specialists, they put her through every pharmaceutical they could think of and finally put her on methadone. Priscilla became addicted.

This 60 year old mother, sister, artist, dietician, hiker, world traveller could no longer live with the pain of Erythromelalgia. The methadone made her life worse. After six long months, she got herself off of methadone; so why would she take her life? She wasn’t terminally ill, but I know that due to the symptoms of her disease and the side effects of the prescription drugs, she wished she were dead. How many other “Priscillas” have families lost? It seems that the majority of doctors in our great country, Canada, choose to allow their patients live in chronic torture, rather than educating themselves enough to recommend that their patients try a plant that is legal in Canada for medicinal use – Cannabis. This plant that has been used for over 4000 years without causing one death. Politics, greed, and the moral judgement of uninformed medical practitioners and politicians, who choose to turn a blind eye to the over six million Canadians who suffer from chronic pain (Dr. Mary Lynch, president of the Canadian Pain Society), need to re-evaluate their positions.

The number of practising physicians in Canada, in 2008, was 65,440. (College of Family Physicians) Of those, only 1,977 doctors are signing Health Canada applications for their patients to use medical marijuana as part of their wellness program. (Health Canada, June 2009)

How can I, as a citizen and politician, interpret this? When did we lose our compassion as a society? Rationally, I don’t think it is because cannabis users increase our health costs. Tobacco-related health costs work out to $800 per user, and alcohol-related health costs add up to $165 per user. Cannabis-related health costs are a mere $20 per user. (B.C.’s Mental Health and Addictions Journal)

Let’s look at some historic attitudes and decisions around cannabis. In 1922, The Black Candle was released. Its sole purpose was to arouse public opinion, and pressure the government into creating stricter drug laws. The RCMP used this book to increase its power along with making cannabis hemp illegal under the name “marijuana” in the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act of 1923. From 1938-61 studies on Cannabis’ benefits were ignored, and penalties increased. In 1938, the Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, commissioned the Greater Medical Association of New York to study the effects and use of marijuana. Their report was published in 1944, and remains one of the most comprehensive studies done on the health and social effects of marijuana smoking. The study found no relationship between crimes of violence and marijuana. The recommendations of this report were ignored. In 1954, a new offence was created in Canada – this being possession for the purpose of trafficking. The sentence for this crime was immediately doubled in the following year, raising the maximum penalty to 14 years imprisonment from seven. Remember, trafficking is a non-violent crime.

In the early 1970s, both the Canadian and American Medical Associations agreed that marijuana is not a narcotic. The LeDain Commission was appointed by the Canadian government to undertake a complete and factual study of marijuana and its effects. The results of the study were presented to the government after four years, and four million dollars worth of research. The Commission recognized that the use of marijuana is not linked to violent crime in any way. It also concluded that prohibitionary laws have only served to create a sub-culture with little respect for the law and law enforcement, as well as diverting law enforcement capability, clogging the judicial system, and providing a base of funds for organized crime. The recommendations of the Le Dain Commission ranged from outright legalization to small fines for marijuana use.

By the late 1970s, there seemed to be consensus in parliament that marijuana needed to be legalized. Many politicians at this time – including Joe Clark, Pierre Trudeau, and Jean Chrétien – publicly stated that they would enact some form of decriminalization as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States in 1980 ruined any chance of this happening. With Nancy Reagan at the helm, the War on Drugs began in earnest once again.

1980-1992: 12 years of American drug warfare, and the budget of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency skyrocketed. The Canadian government deferred to the Reagan and Bush administrations, as they did not want to ruffle their feathers. Over the years, Conservative governments have legislated severe penalties for cannabis. In August 2000, Ontario’s court of appeal ruled that banning marijuana for a medicinal purpose violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Striking down a federal law prohibiting the possession of less than 30 grams, the court rules the law violates the rights of the sick to use the drug for medical purposes. At last, compassionate rules and decisions based on evidence were made. We thought “Now, Canadians will have the opportunity to try a natural medicine that will give them the gift of a better quality of life than they have been able to attain through the use of prescription drugs. And, they can grow it in their gardens or get this medicine at a drug store like all other medicines.” Tears of joy were shed. Unfortunately, here we are 10 years later, watching compassion turn into an illusion.

The story of Priscilla is real. Priscilla was a dear friend of mine for 20 years.
I miss her. After the shock of Priscilla’s death, I decided to “come out of the closet” with my medical cannabis use supported by my doctor through a compassion club. It was difficult for me to “go there,” to become a “pot head,” as so many would see me. Even though I was not a pot user in life before illness, I knew the judgement I could face, from friends and church, if anyone knew. But I also knew how I was able to get off 13 prescription drugs that never worked to relieve my symptoms and made me feel like a zombie. I wanted to believe the prescription drugs would help. That is what I was told by my doctors. They didn’t work and I became isolated. I lost everything of importance to me, just as Priscilla did. Our lives were parallel for a few years. The difference was that my doctor allowedme the opportunity to try cannabis, and hers didn’t. It worked for me. I got my life back, for the most part, and cannabis is the most important of piece of my healing.

I moved away from the city to Grand Forks, B.C. A beautiful little town where I believed my reduction of symptoms would continue. I started a small home-based business, and ran for City Council, in 2008. I was elected. Priscilla died on Dec. 1, 2008 the night that the elected officials were installed to our positions. In Mar. 2009, I went public with my medical use of cannabis at a City Council meeting. I proposed a resolution to take the issue to UBCM to find a solution. The motion was defeated. I continued my public advocacy for dignified, local access to medical cannabis. Now, I research, and work with doctors to attempt to inform them why they should be more open to this medicine. I started a medicinal cannabis support group and am amazed at the number of senior citizens that have come for information and assistance in completing their Health Canada forms, to have legal access to this medicine.

We are so lucky in Canada to have a federal policy that allows us to legal access to cannabis for medical purposes. However, the bureaucratic federal system in place doesn’t work. Currently, a patient can wait up to six months, or more, to get their initial license or renewal license processed. People can die in six months. From 2001-09, only 4029 patients have received a license through Health Canada. Although they are required by law to have the licenses out in 10 weeks, this is not happening. Due to the system problems, legitimate patients end up with swat teams at their doors for all the neighbours to see. Too often their medicine is ripped out of the ground, and they are sent to the street to purchase unknown cannabis strains that may or may not help their symptoms – at a price they cannot afford. We need to find a solution to this system that victimizes people who are already victims.

What could that system look like? My “utopic” vision would include a doctor signing a one page form authorizing their patient to use cannabis for their medical symptoms. The patient would take this form to a provincial office, and pay a user fee of between $20 – $200 depending on the patient’s financial means. The clerk would stamp the doctor’s form, and the patient would be legal. They would go to their local compassion club/dispensary – just as they would a pharmacy – and with the assistance of the trained staff, select the strain most likely to benefit the patient, in a delivery method suited to the patient’s needs. This could be gel capsules, tinctures, oils, the plant buds, creams, butter, or baked goods. The patient would also have the choice to grow their medicine, belong to medicinal cannabis co-operative, or have a designated grower/care giver. Most importantly, the patient lives without fear of prosecution or stigmatization. The provincial office then forwards the relevant paper work to Health Canada. If there are any problems with the paper work, it is sorted out while the patient continues to benefit from their medication.

In the State of Oregon, there are over 30,000 patients receiving access to their medicine through a system like this. Their user fee pays for the State’s budget to run the program, and the program is set up for the needs of the patient – not the needs of the bureaucratic system. The system is compassionate. No one needs to go to court to force the State to get their applications and renewals approved. The doctor/patient relationship remains, as it should, between doctor and patient.

There is nothing more upsetting to me than to hear the statistic that, in Canada, over 10,000 people die in hospitals from the side effects of properly administered prescriptions drugs.(Stats. Canada) These souls did not die from their diseases. It breaks my heart to hear stories of people like a 29 year old man who died because he bled out—a side effect of the prescription drugs he was taking for his cancer. He could have been using cannabis, which in 4000 years has never killed anyone. Do we need prescription drugs? Of course we do, but we also need cannabis. We need to have the best quality of life possible until the day we die.

There are approximately 22 Compassion clubs in Canada. Although illegal by law, they serve approximately 60,000 patients who have their doctor’s written permission. With the federal government working co-operatively with the provincial governments and territories in Canada, we can solve this problem. We just need the political will to do so. We need to make decisions for our people based on scientific evidence, not on moral judgement. I urge you to contact your municipal politicians. Educate them with the facts, and ask them to be part of the solution. Bring facts and studies to your doctors so they will stand up with you, and be your health advocate, rather than the nail in your coffin.