HIGH HOPES, LOW ODDS
Growing numbers of Canadians are finding that only marijuana can treat their pain and suffering, but using it makes them criminals. Despite some hopeful signs, the law is unlikely to change soon
FOR 13 months Andrew Harris lived ``a debilitating horror show.''
It started with blood in his stool and quickly progressed to chronic pain, fatigue, diarrhea and excessive rectal bleeding.
He needed to relieve himself as often as 30 times a day, but he lost bowel control, leaving him only about a 10-second warning to reach a washroom.
``It was a lot of pain and degradation,'' the Toronto white collar worker says. ``I was still working and I was going to the washroom in my pants on the job regularly.''
Harris was prescribed a myriad of drugs, including steroids, which, he says, ``wrecked'' him.
After more than a year of fruitless medical attention, his doctor referred him to Toronto's Rudd Clinic, which specializes in the colon and rectum.
A colonoscopy revealed that his entire colon was badly inflamed and he was warned he may have to have it removed.
Reaching the point of despair, he began wondering if marijuana might help. His doctor told him there was some evidence that it could be beneficial.
He tried it, and his fatigue, he says, disappeared the first day.
``Within three days,'' he adds, ``every single symptom was 100 per cent gone - including the blood.''
Two weeks later he returned to the Rudd Clinic. The clinic's specialist, impressed by the results, sent Harris' doctor a letter:
``Andrew proves a rather definite relationship between smoking pot and relief of his ulcerative colitis. This is so much so that I would offer him a contact person to obtain pot legally if that meets with your approval.''
It wasn't the first evidence to suggest smoking pot can be therapeutic. A number of clinical studies suggest that marijuana alleviates nausea, pain, muscle spasticity, epilepsy, glaucoma, anorexia, bronchial asthma, insomnia, depression and some psychiatric disorders.
But despite his recommendation - and those of many other physicians across the country - pot cannot be obtained legally in Canada, although doctors are free to prescribe cocaine and heroin.
( Doctors can prescribe a drug called marinol, which is a synthetic form of the THC content in marijuana, but many patients say it is ineffective. )
So patients like Harris who rely heavily on pot for relief from agonizing conditions have to break the law to get their medicine.
They do have some reason to hope. In March, for example, federal health minister Allan Rock called for clinical trials on marijuana. This Thursday, his ministry will take part in a landmark civil case in which an AIDS patient is suing the government not only for the right to smoke marijuana without fear of prosecution but also to have the drug paid for by government.
Also in March, a U.S.-commissioned report strongly backed marijuana for medicinal uses, saying it may be one of the most effective treatments available for certain illnesses. The report, by the Institute of Medicine, also said there was no evidence that marijuana use leads to harder drugs.
Last month, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police said simple possession of small amounts of marijuana or hash should be treated as a civil ticketing offence, not a crime.
But for now, having pot in your possession, even if it is the only medicine that can treat your ailment, is illegal.
This doesn't stop people like Harris from getting and using it. But, like many others, he believes it leaves a stigma.
Harris says he has tried to stop using pot several times since he got sick, but each time his symptoms returned with the same severity, and only a joint would relieve them. He smokes a joint each day after work and says it doesn't impede his ability to function.
Andrew Harris is not his real name. Given his job, he feels he has to protect his identity. Only his family and a few close friends know about his smoking.
``I'm not proud of it, ( but ) I want it to be legalized for people like me who need it.''
And though his work benefits covered the approximately $250 monthly pharmaceutical drug expenses, he now spends about the same amount out of his own pocket on marijuana.
But thanks to a Toronto buyers' club called the Medical Marijuana Resource Centre, Harris is assured a constant supply of good quality cannabis at a price below street value.
Warren Hitzig opened the centre in January, 1998, after researching the herb's medicinal benefits. He got his first clients by passing around fliers and contacting organizations like People With AIDS.
He occasionally delivers the medicine on his skateboard.
By April of last year, Hitzig had rented an office in a downtown building and was catering to a growing clientele. Growers started to contact him.
Hitzig set strict policies for approval and sticks to them. Clients must suffer from one of the conditions marijuana has been shown to alleviate and provide a letter of diagnosis or endorsement from a doctor. Doctors must also tell him directly that they approve of the use of marijuana.
``The last thing ( sick ) people should have to worry about,'' he says, ``is whether or not they can get the marijuana.
``The most important thing for people who need it for medical reasons is to make sure they know where it's coming from. ( Here ) it's pesticide-free, mold-free, it's clean and hasn't been treated in any way which could cause a reaction.''
( Any member caught reselling is immediately and permanently kicked out. )
Hitzig, 22, is charismatic, bursting with energy and ready to deal with what comes his way - legally. ( He has more pressing problems: Last week he was evicted from his office on College St. and is currently looking for new headquarters. )
Devoting himself ``eight days a week'' to this venture, Hitzig sells several different strains of marijuana, as well as laced cookies and cooking oil for people who can't smoke.
He also sells seeds and offers monthly sessions on how to grow the plant at home.
It angers Hitzig that marijuana is illegal even to people with medical conditions that can be alleviated by the drug.
``It's great that they're coming out with these medical trials, but what about people who are dying now?''
Hitzig pays himself according to how many hours he works in a day, but says he draws only enough of a salary to get by - usually between $30 and $100 a day.
Any money made beyond that goes back into the club or to the legal defense fund.
Hitzig has about 230 clients now, mostly people on disability pensions, but also some lawyers, doctors and psychologists.
Lynn Duchesne is another of Hitzig's members.
Diagnosed with arthritis nearly 10 years ago, Duchesne says she suffers from stiffness and inflammation without marijuana.
With allergies to other drugs, pot enables her to function, she says.
The most important aspect about the pot she gets from the marijuana resource centre is that she is guaranteed a high-quality product that isn't mixed with any bad chemicals - an impossible guarantee if buying from street dealers.
Though both Harris and Duchesne were recreational smokers before getting sick, first-time users have success with marijuana as well.
Anne Bulman was diagnosed with stomach cancer in December, 1997, and began chemotherapy soon after.
``She lost weight, she got nauseous, the nausea was constant,'' says her daughter, Debbie.
A friend suggested she try marijuana and gave her a joint.
``She tried it and it made a huge difference,'' Bulman says, adding that her mother smoked pot until she died.
Hitzig's lawyer, Osgoode Hall Law School professor Alan Young, wrote to health minister Allan Rock seeking authorization for the buyers' club before it started up.
He wasn't expecting a positive reply, and he didn't get one.
``In the regulations to allow for distribution of unauthorized drugs or new drug approval, everything was designed with synthetic products in mind,'' Young says. The government hasn't figured about how to use the regulations to approve a plant product, he adds.
``It's an uncomfortable fit. They've never done it before, and inertia sets in,'' Young says. ``It can be done, it's just that the political will is not there.''
Rock disagrees. He told The Star on Friday that by the end of June his ministry will be ready to begin the clinical trials.
``Maybe I'm not moving forward as many steps as some people would like, but we're moving forward.''
Marijuana has remained an illegal substance for economic reasons, Young believes. There has been no support from the pharmaceutical industry - which actually could lose millions if marijuana was widely used.
``Pharmaceutical companies are wary to get involved in this exercise because they haven't quite figured out how they patent a plant product,'' Young says.
How can they ensure exclusivity and, therefore, make the kind of profits they make on their other products?
``That's what's really keeping things moving at a snail's pace, because pharmaceutical companies are always the people who push for new drugs to be approved,'' Young says.
``They don't seem to have any incentive to push for marijuana to be approved because anyone can grow it in their backyard or basement.''
The flip side of the coin is the money officials and institutions make from marijuana's prohibition, he says, particularly in the U.S., which spends billions fighting the drug trade and exerts enormous influence on other countries to follow its lead.
Six states recently decriminalized marijuana for marijuana use, but Washington has threatened legal action against any that implements the legislation.
``I do believe that the Americans are very steadfast in trying to influence Canadian drug policy to ensure that we don't fall like the Europeans,'' Young says.
Therapeutic use of marijuana is already allowed in some European nations.
Meanwhile, people here continue to suffer and ``it's a national disgrace that this government is not helping sick people,'' Young says.