September 6, 2002 Friday
by Margaret Mironowicz
The Hamilton Spectator
The lives of hundreds of medical marijuana users in the Toronto-Hamilton area have been thrown into chaos by a police raid on a club that sold them dope.
Toronto police raided the Toronto Compassion Club in mid-August, closing down the operation that bought dope from suppliers and sold it at street value to users. Many of those people are legal medical marijuana users with permits from the federal government. Others had only prescriptions from their doctors.
The owners have been charged with trafficking. And now users say they can't get the "medicine" they need to ease their pain or medical conditions. "My phone has been ringing off the wall from members calling, asking what we can do to help," said Mike McGaw, assistant manager of the Canadian Medical Marijuana Association, an advocacy group that operates on the Internet.
Tillsonburg's McGaw is one of the 855 people who have so far been authorized since 2000 by Health Canada to use cannabis to relieve pain and symptoms of medical conditions ranging from HIV-AIDS, multiple sclerosis, cancer and arthritis to terminal illnesses.
McGaw, a 43-year-old former tax consultant, suffers from severe back pain as a result of a car accident which left him partially paralysed on one side. He is licenced to grow cannabis for his personal use, but sometimes runs out and must search for a supply.
McGaw said he has been referring people who call to other compassion clubs still operating. The clubs sell marijuana at about $80 a quarter-ounce. Enforcement and drought have driven the price of a pound close to $3,000.
"We're very frustrated, and very angry, and very confused," said Dominic Cramer, a volunteer supporter and spokesperson for the Toronto Compassion Club.
The club, at Bathurst Street and St. Clair Avenue, operated using a small network of unlicensed cannabis growers as sources for its 1,200 members.
There are about 15 compassion clubs in Canada -- "the only safe outlet for people to get their medicine," said Cramer.
But there is new hope for medical users. The Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs recommended Wednesday that marijuana be legalized for people 16 and older. Members said it should be treated like tobacco and alcohol.
Decriminalizing marijuana might be a "first step" in reforming drug laws which seem out of date, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said yesterday. The marijuana law needs to be changed, he said, and decriminalization -- which would let people possess and use small quantities of cannabis without facing a criminal record -- is a logical option.
"It probably would be feasible as a first step," Cauchon said outside a cabinet meeting. "I feel that there is a strong support. I feel that the population is there.
"To keep it the way it is now doesn't make any sense to me in the year 2002."
Cauchon said he'll have a new policy ready early next year, but first he wants to see the report of a Commons committee which has been studying the issue of illicit drugs. That report is expected in November.
Burlington's Alison Myrden suffers from multiple sclerosis and was among the first in Canada to get legal permission to use marijuana for the sharp, stabbing facial pain she experiences. She has been forced to buy marijuana on the street.
Myrden's never sure what's in the pot. And it isn't always the right strain to properly relieve her pain. She was hospitalized and back on morphine shortly after the club was raided.
"I don't want the streets to be my pharmacy," said Myrden, 38. "At the clubs, I was able to try various strains for this pain in my face."
In 2000, Health Canada awarded biotechnology company Prairie Plant Systems a five-year, $5.7-million contract to grow standardized, research-grade marijuana. It is to eventually supply cannabis for long-term Canadian research into the safety and effectiveness of marijuana for various conditions.
Allan Rock was the Health Minister at the time. He developed the rules that allow sufferers of certain medical conditions to grow and smoke cannabis. He hired Saskatoon's Prairie Plant Systems to grow marijuana many users understood it would be grown for them.
But his successor, Anne McLellan, says legal users will not have access to the government pot; that they must still find their own supplies. Instead, the drug will be used strictly for research.
In Toronto, a spokesman and founder for Cannabis As Living Medicine said growers are "legitimately scared."
"They provide what the government is supposed to provide," said the spokesman, who goes by the name Neev. "They have legitimate worries about being arrested."
Growing marijuana is illegal and police across the country have been cracking down in grow operations. They consider them criminal enterprises.
The 600-member CALM was formed in 1997 to provide the sick with medical marijuana through three contract growers. Members need doctors' letters stating their medical condition and that marijuana helps their chronic or terminal condition. CALM staff then verify the information.
It operates like a compassion house. "We try and make it simple for medical users, given how vulnerable they are," said Neev.
In Ottawa, Gillian Lynch is director-general of Health Canada's Drug Strategy and Controlled Substance division, under which the Office of Cannabis Medical Access was established in 2001. Its mandate is to administer regulations permitting the sick access to cannabis for medical purposes. She said the number of people applying for permission is growing steadily.
"We know there are a lot of Canadians suffering from terminal illnesses and grave illnesses and they do feel smoking marijuana helps them to live more comfortably, and they have the support of their physicians in that belief."
When Ottawa amended the Narcotic Control Act and brought in the Marijuana Medical Access Regulation on July 1, 2001, Canada became the first country in the world to legalize the medical use of marijuana. Health Canada began giving medical exemptions in 2000 under Section 56 of the Controlled Drug and Substances Act, following an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that it was unconstitutional to criminalize a person for using a substance that alleviates the symptoms of a serious medical disease.
The regulations allow users to possess or grow marijuana under these conditions:
* That they are terminally ill with a survival prognosis of less than 12 months.
* That they suffer from pain or muscle spasms from multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury and disease.
* That they have pain, weight loss or severe nausea as a result of cancer and HIV-AIDS.
Also eligible are those who suffer from severe forms of arthritis and epilepsy.
They need a declaration from medical specialists that conventional treatments have been tried or considered.
Canada's first medical trials involving smoked marijuana, funded by Health Canada, are set to start at the end of this month, involving 32 people suffering from HIV-AIDS in Toronto. The trials, conducted by the Community Research Initiative of Toronto in conjunction with a Toronto hospital, will determine if smoked marijuana enhances appetites and alleviates the wasting syndrome affecting HIV-AIDS sufferers.
And in the fall, Montreal clinical trials are being planned at the Pain Centre of McGill University Health Centre to examine the effect of smoked marijuana on patients suffering from neuropathic (abnormalities along the nerve pathways) pain.
"The two studies are firsts for Canada," said Kimberly Walker, CRIT's executive director in Toronto.
The marijuana for these studies will be provided by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Their first batch of 75 kilograms was harvested last December. It was grown from seeds taken by the RCMP, but inconsistent quality made it unusable. Lynch said the next batch of Flin Flon samples won't be ready until the end of the year. It will go to larger projects still to be developed.
Studies on the medical benefits and risks of marijuana are inconclusive. But researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, reported two years ago that they found significant weight gain -- an average of 3.5 kilograms -- among HIV-AIDS sufferers who smoked marijuana, and no sign that it adversely affected their immune systems. The Canadian Medical Association Journal notes that cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in developed countries, but there is limited epidemiological research on its health effects. At high doses, according to the journal, there may be an increased risk of experiencing psychotic symptoms, and an increased risk of low-birth-weight babies if cannabis is smoked during pregnancy. As well, the CMA reports heavy users can develop a cannabis dependency and respiratory diseases.
The American Medical Association notes that the question of whether prolonged use of cannabis leads to a deterioration of cognitive function -- thinking -- remains unresolved.
Medicinal use of cannabis appears to have begun around 2737 BC in China and then spread to India.
Antique writings describe it as a plant that could relieve stress, says author Mitch Earleywine, associate professor of clinical science and director of clinical training in psychology at the University of Southern California. "The plant consistently appeared in pharmacopoeia and folk medicine as a treatment for pain, seizure, muscle spasm, poor appetite, nausea, insomnia, asthma and depression."
In Boston, Dr. Lester Grinspoon, professor emeritus in the faculty of
psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said Canada is to be applauded for
its efforts to undertake clinical trials. But "as far as I'm concerned
the mountain of anecdotal evidence which already exists has more than answered
the questions about the benefits of marijuana."
© Copyright 2002 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.