More MS news articles for Feb 2002

A couple of tokes to ease the pain

Feb. 23, 2002. 01:00 AM

VICTORIA PHILIPPE LUCAS, a former high school English teacher, says he has no interest in being a crusader or a rebel 覧 he simply wants to help people stop suffering.

Lucas, 32, runs The Vancouver Island Compassion Society (VICS), a members-only club here where people can buy marijuana to help combat critical and chronic illnesses such as AIDS, hepatitis C, cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.

Since opening its doors in 1999, membership at the VICS has climbed to more than 220. Over that time, the federal government has moved to make marijuana available for limited medicinal use after an Ontario Court of Appeal decision forced its hand.

But while the laws may have loosened, the VICS and about a dozen other so-called compassion clubs across Canada remain illegal. The one here has been forced to relocate three times as its notoriety grows. It was raided by police 15 months ago, resulting in possession and trafficking charges against Lucas, who is to appear in court in April.

Still, Lucas says he has no plans to abandon dispensing what he calls "primary health care" for many people who suffer from debilitating diseases and find marijuana is the only drug that reduces pain, controls seizures, allows sleep or helps develop an appetite.

"For a lot of people who join the society, this is their first choice of medicine, the only thing that works for them," says Lucas, who was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1995, 13 years after receiving tainted blood in an operation to remove his spleen. "They take a real chance by coming here, but they see us as their only alternative."

Lucas, an occasional marijuana user before getting sick, has quit drinking and smoking cigarettes. A thin man who cannot afford to lose weight with a disease affecting his immune system, he uses the drug daily to combat nausea and a lack of appetite.

"If I don't smoke, I really don't eat," says Lucas, who takes a break from marijuana a couple of days each month and finds at that time he's hard-pressed to eat.

The lengthy legal debate about marijuana in Canada came to a head two summers ago when the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that Terry Parker, a Toronto man who suffers from severe epilepsy, could use and grow it for medical purposes. It also said the country's cannabis law was unconstitutional and gave Ottawa a year to make it easier for people with debilitating diseases to access the drug legally.

The government introduced new regulations, which came into effect last summer, allowing certain patients with chronic or terminal illnesses to apply to Health Canada for permission to use marijuana for medical reasons. It's open to people with less than a year to live or who have AIDS/HIV, cancer, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, severe arthritis or epilepsy, as well as those suffering from other conditions, if two doctors recommend the use of the drug for treatment.

Applicants must have a doctor conclude, among other things, that the benefits of the person using marijuana "outweigh any risks associated with that use."

About 750 people across the country 覧 including Lucas 覧 have been granted permission from Ottawa to possess up to a 30-day supply of marijuana for medical purposes.

Health Canada is also testing the potency and quality of marijuana grown on its behalf at an underground mine in Manitoba. It will soon be distributed to those who have government approval to use it.

But Ottawa is still not supplying marijuana to Canadians legally entitled to use it. That means those people have to regularly break the law to obtain the drug, either from clandestine dealers or clubs such as the VICS.

With at least 400,000 Canadians saying they use marijuana medically, critics charge it's obvious more needs to be done to get the drug into the hands of those who need it.

Lucas points to a survey in May, 2000, which found 92 per cent approval for legalizing marijuana for medical use. "The problem is the public is much more compassionate than the laws right now."

In the meantime, life will go on at the VICS. A small, non-descript street-front location a few blocks from the heart of downtown Victoria, it resembles an office people would visit to get their taxes done rather than to buy a few joints, cannabis oil or ganja cookies.

There's no sign out front advertising what lies within. After opening the front door, people are greeted by a large desk, vases of dried flowers and the smell of incense.

Nowhere are there overt signs of the shop's extensive security, including motion detectors and a safe. In fact, it's hard to see anything that might need protecting.

But up a short staircase and behind a curtain, is the real reason people come to the VICS. On a metal board, written with a felt pen, is the daily menu of marijuana available, with descriptions of its qualities such as "sweet, strong and lasting."

There is a shelf of items for sale, including pot pipes, rolling papers and vaporizers that can be used to safely consume the drug.

Members, who include teachers, lawyers and other professionals as well as a former Catholic nun and an ex-RCMP officer, cannot use marijuana on site. In fact, each signs a promise to use the drug safely at home and not resell it. Violation of those rules will result in expulsion from the club.

Applicants need a recommendation from their doctor that cannabis be used to treat their condition.

Once an application is received by mail, VICS officials confirm the doctor's recommendation and the patient's condition. After that, the person is called in for a registration process that takes about 40 minutes.

For club members, the VICS also offers a safe supply of a drug many say is the only thing that works for them. Larry, 42, a former aircraft maintenance employee who suffers from severe arthritis and now lives on an $800 a month disability pension, says he'd have "to go out on the street to get some" if he were not able to come to the club.

"Most of the other drugs I take don't do a damn thing," says Larry, who asks that his last name not be used. "This allows me to function just a little bit better."

Larry spends about $70 a month on marijuana 覧 less than one-quarter the cost of the various other drugs he takes each month 覧 and finds a half or full joint a day helps him eat and sleep. It also reduces pain in his back, neck, shoulders, hands and legs much better than any of the more expensive things he is prescribed to use.

"I used to drink quite a bit to beat the pain," Larry says. "But drinking is bad for you."

For Lucas, the only unanswered question is when Ottawa will make marijuana more widely available to the tens of thousands of people who need it. Until that happens, he vows to continue running the VICS, regardless of the legal fallout.

"What laws would you not break to help the people you love," he says.

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