FOR DUTCH PAIN SUFFERERS, MARIJUANA IS JUST ANOTHER PRESCRIPTION DRUG
GRONINGEN, Netherlands -- With a lever controlled by his left arm -- the
only part of his body he still can move -- Peter Boonman maneuvers his
motorized wheelchair across his spacious apartment to a table where he
keeps a vaporizing pipe and small plastic pharmaceutical containers of
Getting high makes Mr. Boonman's life bearable. Since his multiple
sclerosis was diagnosed at the end of the 1980s, his body has slowly
deteriorated. At 52 years old, he is almost entirely paralyzed and is
confined to his wheelchair or bed.
"The MS makes me tired," he said. "The marijuana gives me strength and energy."
Mr. Boonman smokes about three grams of marijuana each day. When he runs
low, he picks up the phone and calls a pharmacy. A pharmacist delivers the
pot in small plastic jars -- usually 20 bottles, enough to last him a month.
Eighty percent of the cost is covered by national health insurance.
Last March, the Netherlands passed a law allowing doctors to prescribe
marijuana to patients suffering from a variety of ailments, including
multiple sclerosis, AIDS and cancer. The Dutch government then contracted
with two growers to produce the medicinal marijuana under strict guidelines
to ensure quality and cleanliness. By September, the world's first
large-scale government-contracted supplies of pot reached pharmacy shelves.
The Netherlands long has practiced what it considers a pragmatic approach
to drugs, and distinguishes between hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine,
and so-called soft drugs, such as marijuana and hashish. The policy
decriminalizes possession of soft drugs for personal use and allows them to
be sold in designated "coffee shops."
Now, the Netherlands has gone even further, treating marijuana as a
prescription drug. It is available at pharmacies in two potencies, and some
patients prescribed pot can have a portion of it covered by their health
insurance, like other medications.
Canada became the first country, in 2001, to legalize marijuana for medical
use. But the Canadian law didn't provide a way for people who wanted
marijuana to get it. Legalization advocates say the Dutch system, making
marijuana available in pharmacies, is more practical.
Paul van Hoorn, 71, and his wife, Jo, 70, are among the 20,000 Dutch
patients who use marijuana for medical reasons. They began in 2001, she for
chronic rheumatism, he for glaucoma.
In their small Rotterdam home, they smoke marijuana each night at 8:30.
Paul van Hoorn said he had bad skin rashes that cleared up when he began
smoking marijuana. He said he reads the Bible after smoking, and he said
that after he began using marijuana, he could read the fine print in the
Scriptures more clearly. Jo van Hoorn said she tried various medicines,
including morphine, but nothing stopped the aching in her legs, until she
For late starters such as the van Hoorns, Dutch doctors recommend that they
not smoke marijuana in the traditional way -- rolling it into a cigarette,
or joint, or by using a water pipe. Instead, doctors suggest that patients
make marijuana tea or use the vaporizing method.
The medicinal marijuana law is being criticized by some for not going far
enough. One well-known marijuana user, Ger de Zwaan, 51, chairman of the
Patients for Medical Marijuana Foundation, based in Rotterdam, said the
Dutch law is flawed because government controls keep the price of pot at
pharmacies much higher than it is at coffee shops, and patients don't have
access to the vast varieties available.