"Sarah" puts her lips to the vapour-filled bag, inhaling medicine and worry in one intoxicating breath.
The 52-year-old Windsor woman, who did not want her real name used, is a Health Canada-approved medical marijuana user. Or, at least, she used to be.
Right now she lives in limbo, largely shutting herself in at home alone with a federal medical marijuana card that expired at the beginning of December, with no explanation why her renewed exemption hasn't arrived. And with fears about the law.
"There's a lot of pain," she said through tears, her bare feet knotted, her hands and voice trembling. "They shouldn't leave people in a predicament like this. They shouldn't make a system that is so difficult. If you're this sick, you can't fight a system."
Sarah was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1997. She doesn't know how she contracted the disease, but knows the havoc it wreaks. It led to a raft of worsening auto-immune and neurological ailments -- "white noise" in her head and pain throbbing in her hands, feet, arms and legs. Doctors suspect multiple sclerosis.
She popped prescription drugs. But methadone has its own dulling trance.
Still her problems persisted. Her liver weakened. Her infectious arthritis worsened. She lost 25 pounds in a year. Her hands trembled.
About a year and a half ago, a doctor prescribed medical marijuana, on the belief that it reduces pain and tremors and increases appetite.
Health Canada issued her a medical marijuana photo card.
She lives on little more than $1,000 a month through Ontario disability assistance and can't afford the $150 every five days she says it would cost to buy her prescription from Health Canada. So she found a compassion club, which she says mails her marijuana for free.
She bought a $1,000 vaporizer, to avoid the harsh smoke of joints.
She consumes perhaps five grams of weed a day. Sometimes she eats it. She says her only two cookbooks are marijuana-themed.
She fared relatively well. Still slowly dying, yes, but coping better than before. Until December.
"I can't go out of my house with my medicine right now," the mother of grown children said in her modest apartment, a small baggy of pot at her elbow. "I can't have anybody in."
The Marihuana Medical Access Regulations came into force July 30, 2001, allowing Canadians suffering from grave or debilitating illnesses to consume marijuana. Severe pain from such things as multiple sclerosis, arthritis and epilepsy is the main reason for exemptions.
Users must renew their cards yearly, since cannabis remains otherwise illegal.
Across the country, 1,977 physicians have prescribed medical marijuana more than once.
"Physicians are expected to use their best judgment in deciding whether to complete a medical declaration under the MMAR," reads an online policy of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. "To date, there have not been adequate studies that prove that marijuana is effective in relieving symptoms associated with serious medical conditions. The adverse effects of marijuana include the harms associated with smoking."
Chad Clelland, director of community relations for Medicalmarijuana.ca, said a number of studies over the years indicate the wide-ranging benefits of the cannabis sativa plant. He also said his organization advises medical marijuana users to reapply for licence extensions 10 weeks in advance, and that initial applications reportedly take as long as five months.
Health Canada spokesman Gary Holub said processing usually requires about eight weeks.
"Since marihuana is not an approved drug, the MMAR require that holders of an authorization to possess dried marihuana for medical purposes have their cases reviewed by a medical practitioner every year, in order to assess the risks and benefits of using marihuana for medical purposes and to discuss whether new, approved treatments have become available that might be more appropriate for their care," Holub wrote in an email. "If the authorized person no longer has the support of their physician to use marihuana for medical purposes, then Health Canada would not renew the person's authorization to possess."
A drug infraction would also revoke a licence.
Windsor police Sgt. Brett Corey said officers would assess individual cases in deciding whether to arrest a medical marijuana user with an expired Health Canada card.
"If you go by the letter if the law, if someone is in possession of marijuana with an expired licence from Health Canada, then technically they are in contravention of the act," Corey said Wednesday. "But it would be up to the officer's discretion whether to charge. We're going to take in a number of factors."
Corey said Windsor police know of several medical marijuana licences in the Windsor area, but they do not appear common.
Sarah, meanwhile, feels the system overflows with bureaucracy and therefore forces participants into criminal activity.
"I didn't realize the landmines I was walking into," Sarah said. "I didn't realize how hard it was going to be using medical marijuana. The system is set up to fail."
January 28, 2010