Weed Control Part 1: MS sufferer finds relief with medical marijuana

By bananaskin · Jun 28, 2010 · Updated Jun 28, 2010 · ·
  1. bananaskin
    Matt Young used to bust kids for smoking pot as a security officer in Calgary, but now it's Young who's trying to find a way to smoke marijuana in peace.

    That search almost cost him his life.

    Young, now living in Saskatchewan, is a former private security manager and amateur bodybuilder who wanted to be a police officer. He's watched all that disappear as his multiple sclerosis advanced since his diagnosis at age 14.

    The 28-year-old has tried every drug suggested to him by doctors in three provinces, but he said marijuana, which he only tried once or twice in high school, is the only drug that stops his spasms and lets him eat and sleep at night.

    "Marijuana still doesn't eliminate the problems, but it reduces them so I can get out of bed and play with my boy," Young said, referring to his seven-year-old stepson.

    At the end of May, Health Canada sent Young the card that allows him to legally smoke marijuana. He's one of 100 Saskatchewan residents and 4,029 Canadians who can legally possess cannabis, according to Health Canada.

    "I wish it could have been something else that helped me," Young said, sitting beside his childhood friend and now partner, Tina Mauro, in their home north of Saskatoon. "But I've tried everything else."

    To legally smoke pot, one has to find a doctor willing to sign a prescription for the drug. Health Canada approves the possession licence and the prescription is filled by growing a small supply of marijuana, finding a designated holder (also licensed by the government) or buying from Health Canada.

    Legal access to medical marijuana in Saskatchewan is not easily obtained, say several users and proponents of medicinal pot.

    Earlier this year, the local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws blasted the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan for deterring doctors from prescribing pot. Health Canada counts 59 Saskatchewan doctors who support medical marijuana.

    Young had a difficult time finding a Saskatchewan doctor to prescribe marijuana before Health Canada sent him his licence.

    "A lot of damage has been done to our lives," Young said. "If somebody reads this, maybe it'll provide them a glimmer of hope."

    - - -

    Young grew up in Saskatchewan, but found himself in Calgary where he ran security for an office complex.

    He applied to be an officer with the Calgary Police Service, but was told he was ineligible because of his multiple sclerosis, a disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

    Eventually, the MS symptoms escalated and Young sought treatment. He tried a barrage of drugs prescribed by doctors. The medication didn't work and, in 2005, after getting approval from Health Canada, he tried marijuana as an alternative.

    "I got better," Young said, while sitting in his two-bedroom bungalow in a small town north of Saskatoon.

    He smoked for a year. He felt so good that he stopped smoking. He had a severe relapse and he soon found himself moving back to Saskatchewan in 2008 to live with Mauro at her suggestion. They were engaged in September 2009.

    But in Saskatchewan, Young couldn't find a doctor to prescribe marijuana. They pushed more pharmaceuticals on him, he said, but nothing worked and the drugs often made Young more ill.

    "He's the one in 100 that the drugs didn't work for," said Mauro, a former pharmacy technician who now works at a bank.

    Young pleaded with his doctors to write him a prescription for marijuana. He's not a man to mingle with drug dealers and Health Canada sells pot at half the price of its street value.

    In January, frustrated and depressed with refusals from doctors, Young set out to kill himself. He overdosed on prescription pills at his home while his family was away.

    "When I walked in the door, he stopped breathing," Mauro said. Their son was screaming for Young to wake up while Mauro called paramedics. Young was taken to Shellbrook Hospital before a transfer to Saskatoon where he spent several days in a coma.

    "The doctors didn't think he was going to make it," Mauro said. "He was in a coma on a Monday and on Tuesday I walked into the hospital room and he turned over and looked at me and we both started crying."

    - - -

    The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan warns doctors about prescribing medical marijuana. The treatment has plenty of anecdotal evidence but little else to back up health claims, say medical experts.

    "In time, I think we'll have a greater level of consensus, but we need more evidence," said Dr. Peter Butt, a Saskatoon family physician and addictions specialist. "We're in the early of days of medical marijuana and the story has yet to unfold.

    "There's limited evidence about its efficacy. We have a product being smoked, so there's a health problem with that. Just as tobacco companies are being sued, some physicians might be reluctant to prescribe something that will also cause harm."

    There are other problems: Criminal involvement in marijuana trade and the contamination of street drugs, addiction and the trouble of measuring dosage for different patients.

    But there are cases in which marijuana has helped people, especially those who are HIV positive, receiving chemotherapy or diagnosed with MS, said Butt, also an assistant professor with the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine.

    There is some evidence that marijuana can help patients regain their appetite and ease nausea and chronic pain, he said.

    "It can help in select cases, but that doesn't mean it's a panacea for all chronic pain," Butt said.

    To make marijuana use safer for patients, researchers must develop a better delivery system to avoid the health problems associated with smoking, Butt said.

    "How many medications are dispensed in leaf form?" Butt said.

    Some medical marijuana proponents and users believe current alternatives -- sprays and pills with concentrated THC -- don't work as well as smoking.

    The MS Society doesn't recommend MS patients use marijuana, but does say that there is anecdotal evidence to support its benefits, said Laurie Murphy, the charity's client services co-ordinator in Saskatoon.

    "It can help with spasticity and pain," she said. "But we can't advocate for any treatment that doesn't have the research to back it up."

    The society directs curious patients to Health Canada if they feel like marijuana is the last resort, Murphy said.

    "I don't know of many doctors in Saskatchewan who support it and many won't even talk about it," she said. "It's sad they can't access (marijuana) if they benefit from it."

    - - -

    A neurologist gave Young a prescription in February and Health Canada mailed Young his licence four months later.

    Young can only pay for some of his prescription, which allows him 3.5 grams of marijuana per day. Health Canada charges Young about $600 per month to fill his prescription, half of the street value for the same amount, he said.

    He'd like governments to subsidize marijuana, like provinces do for other prescriptions, for low-income people. He and Mauro are a single-income family and they run a cake decorating business on the side. The couple is trying to keep their home as they fight financial problems, Young said.

    Despite the discount, Young only bought one ounce for his first purchase this year. He smoked it all by the middle of June and he can't order more until the end of the month.

    "He scrapes and conserves if there's any residue left," Mauro said.

    Young said marijuana "is supposed to heal, but waiting for it feels like torture."

    In an email, a Health Canada spokesperson suggested licensed users grow their marijuana -- it charges $20 for a packet of 30 seeds -- to keep expenses low.

    Young doesn't want to grow his marijuana, although it'd be easy to do with Health Canada's approval. He lives with a young family in a small town and fears how even a couple of marijuana plants could jeopardize his family's security.

    "I hope to fall asleep before the spasms start," he said. Without the marijuana, Young said, his body is wracked by insomnia, spasms, nausea and eating troubles. "I feel like I'm literally losing my mind. I have a digital recorder I rely on because I'm constantly forgetting things."

    Once Young inhales the marijuana smoke, the changes are instant, Mauro said.

    "The depression is gone. His thoughts are clear, concise," she said. "He loves to write again and the appetite is there."

    "The only thing that makes it better is the marijuana," Young said.

    By Jeremy Warren, The StarPhoenix
    June 27, 2010


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  1. bananaskin
    Weed Control Part 2: 'Still treated as criminals'

    Medical marijuana growers face obstacles, while police still see issues

    The walls are bright white and patched with red construction tape. Fluorescent lights -- mimicking sunlight -- shine down on 20 flowering plants of varying strains.

    Two giant pails of water being aerated fill the room with a low hum, as Jason Hiltz stands above rows of flowering herbs in the converted garage greenhouse.

    There, just off the main drag in a small town outside Saskatoon, sits one of 94 legal medical marijuana grow operations in the province and one of the many Hiltz helped get off the ground.

    It's unsophisticated, but it works, he said.

    "This has a few glossy spots," Hiltz tells James Francis, 52, who says he's the longest licensed user of medical marijuana in Canada.

    "When did you last water?"

    Hiltz, a horticulturist and Saskatchewan's best known pot advocate, is Francis' cannabis consultant, helping him and 12 other local medical marijuana growers cultivate their crops.

    Hiltz, who is also a licensed user after a car crash left him with chronic pain, helps everyone from family friends to elderly people on their death beds access medicinal marijuana and advises a number of growers on how to wind through Health Canada's bureaucratic morass.

    "It's about compassion," Hiltz says. "Honestly, it's probably easier being an illegal grower than a legal grower."

    More research is supporting previous anecdotal evidence that cannabis may have a wide range of therapeutic uses, such as the treatment of Alzheimer's, depression, glaucoma, epilepsy, cancer, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

    However, the medical growers in the Saskatoon area say the government's program has artificially depressed the medical market by making it difficult for patients to qualify, supplying what many consider poor-quality marijuana and restricting qualified licensed growers to supplying a maximum of two patients.

    Growers say they live in fear of break-ins, some say they're discriminated against by police who still view their grow-ops with an air of suspicion and struggle against the insurance industry, which wants absolutely nothing to do with the risks.

    "We're still treated as criminals," says Jeff Lundstrom, the owner of Skunk Funk, a head shop that he says has become the local headquarters for the medical marijuana community.

    Lundstrom, who is authorized to grow for two users under the federal program, had his garage-based grow room broken into over winter. Someone caught wind of the operation, drove a vehicle through his garage and made off with two plants he was pollenizing. The legal operation wasn't covered by insurance and he was forced to pay for the repairs -- the thieves were never caught.

    "Now, you don't worry about the police kicking in your door," Lundstrom says, "you worry about some thug kicking in your door and stealing the medicine."

    Saskatoon Police Const. Dean Hoover, head of the integrated drug unit, says Saskatoon hasn't yet seen the problem, cited by the RCMP in several jurisdictions, where medical growers traffic excess marijuana to make a profit.

    The major issue for police is the lack of available information from the Health Canada program. The police aren't given a list ahead of time on where medical grow-ops exist. They're not informed until they want to do a search warrant, he said. If police agencies knew the addresses they may also be able to help with enforcement, he says. Grey is not a good colour for the law, he says.

    "Until they get some type of system where they give us lists of who's got them to ensure they're not going above their quotas, what are we going to do?" Hoover says.

    A Health Canada spokesperson, in an email interview, says the government will only disclose information to police if a person is suspected of illegal activity. Otherwise, it's seen as a privacy breach.

    The legalization of marijuana or even the over-the-counter sale in a compassion club in Saskatchewan, where weed is given out to those with a medical card, is a pipe dream because the acceptance of the drug, from a cultural perspective, doesn't come close to matching that of British Columbia, where several dispensaries exist, Hoover says.

    Marijuana is the most prolific drug in Saskatoon and its risks shouldn't be downplayed due to the potency of modern pot, he says. With the advent of THC pills, there's no need for smoking medical marijuana, he says.

    "I've never talked to a cocaine user or morphine addict that didn't start off by smoking marijuana," Hoover says. "Anyone that says it's not a gateway drug is full of shit."

    Lundstrom sits behind a desk at the back of his store, hemp posters adorning the walls and pot paraphernalia strewn around his desk.

    He has tried to get a medical exemption himself because of chronic back problems suffered when he fell off scaffolding, but has been denied four times by wary doctors. He left the doctor's office in tears recently after he was told cannabis stimulates appetite, a side-effect that would not help with his weight. Like the vast majority of patients who say they need marijuana as a medicine, Lundstrom continues to buy pot on the black market.

    The market exists in Saskatchewan to start a compassion club or dispensary similar to those in B.C., but those looking to grow or use for medical reasons are stilted by doctors unwilling to prescribe, Lundstrom says.

    Several advocates say their goal is to start a sustainable commercial agriculture operation in Saskatchewan to provide medicinal marijuana to those with exemption cards if the Health Canada restrictions are lifted.

    "There's 50 people I could be growing for right now and I'm only allowed to grow for two. It's a headache, plain and simple," Lundstrom says.

    "It's still illegal and to many people medical marijuana is just simply a loophole to an illegal system and that's how it's being treated."

    The limit of growing for two users, however, doesn't appear set to change any time soon. It was established "in order to reduce the risk of diversion and to protect the health and safety of Canadians," Health Canada's spokesperson writes.

    Francis, the long-time medical marijuana user whose name has been changed because of fear of break-ins and the stigma he faces in the small town, says he's been working out daily, awaiting the day a burglar comes through the door.

    He decided to build his own grow-up -- at a substantial cost -- because product from Health Canada wasn't potent enough and the supply from growers in B.C. was inconsistent.

    A collision in Saskatoon 12 years ago crushed half of Francis' spinal chord, leaving him unable to feel his legs for three years. A long-time recreational user, he turned to cannabis, which he smokes or ingests up to 10 times a day, because heavier prescription pain killers zapped his energy, left him constipated and unable to sleep.

    Slowly, Francis has been able to wean the amount of morphine he uses down to almost zero, which he credits to medicinal marijuana.

    "It doesn't kill the pain, but it deflects it," he says. "It helps your mind carry on."

    - - -


    Province People Supportive authorized physicians to possess

    Alberta 282 140

    B.C. 1,008 536

    Manitoba 57 30

    New Brunswick 88 44

    Nfld and Lab. 39 24

    Nova Scotia 491 159

    Ontario 1,631 801

    Québec 305 162

    Saskatchewan 100 59

    Rest of Canada 28 22

    TOTAL 4029 1977

    Source: Statistics Canada - 2009

    - - -


    Possession, sale and production of marijuana in Canada remains illegal. However, Health Canada provides an exemption for compassionate care and for treating symptoms associated with several conditions, including severe pain or persistent muscle spasms from multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury or spinal cord disease; severe pain, nausea or anorexia from cancer or HIV/AIDS infections; and severe pain from forms of arthritis or seizures from epilepsy.

    Health Canada also exempts those who have debilitating symptoms of other medical conditions that do not respond to conventional treatments. Those who qualify require a doctor to verify the medical problem and prescribe the usage. The users are also required to obtain a licence from Health Canada.

    The government suggests three sources for medicinal marijuana: Buy the weed grown for Health Canada from Prairie Plant Systems of Saskatoon, grow your own or designate someone else to grow it for you. Those who grow marijuana must be licensed by Health Canada and meet security requirements to prevent loss or theft. The government also regulates the amount of marijuana that can be grown and stored.

    JUNE 27, 2010

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