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Newshawk: Dave Haans
Pubdate: Sun, 16 May, 1999
Source: Toronto Star (Canada)
Section: Point of View
Page: A3
Copyright: 1999, The Toronto Star
Author: Barbara Turnbull, Toronto Star Staff Reporter


In 1983, a bullet in the neck made me a quadriplegic.  Pot helps me deal with the resulting muscle spasms in a way no legal drug can.

I smoke marijuana.

I inhale every time, too - usually once or twice a week for the past four years, since I discovered pot's incredible medicinal value.

Every time I do it, I break the law.  Possessing marijuana for any purpose is a criminal offence.

I need to smoke marijuana.  Simply put, the quality of my life is improved by marijuana in a way that pharmaceutical medication cannot accomplish.

I have been a quadriplegic since 1983, when a bullet in the neck put an end to my short-lived career as a convenience store clerk.

Although I cannot move a muscle from my shoulders down, the muscles themselves can move.  Shortly after my injury, they began to twitch spontaneously.

At first it was the odd jerk of one of my legs or arms, but fairly quickly my limbs became much more spastic.

The spasms are a common symptom of quadriplegia.  Doctors say it's the body's reflexes responding on their own, since, with spinal cord injury, the messages from the brain that controls the body are cut off.

Early on, I was given a drug, Baclofen, for the problem.  I have been at the maximum dosage for the past 15 years.  Without that, I am sure my body wouldn't sit still for a second.

As it is, the spasms can come at any time and are of varying degrees of intensity.  It's like my body is a rubber band, getting stretched tighter and tighter.  When it is impossibly taut, it snaps.  That is the spasm.

Sometimes one of my legs will bounce up and down for several seconds, earning me the nickname Thumper from my kid sister ( after the rabbit in Bambi ).

They aren't painful, but they can be overwhelming.  They affect my ability to operate my electric wheelchair, and they can keep me awake at night.  Sometimes, when I am driving my chair, they can put me in jeopardy.

Nothing stops the spasms as instantly and effectively as smoking a bit of pot.  And the effect lasts for hours.

But marijuana is a drug, critics say.  People smoke it to get high.

Very true.  I'd be lying if I said marijuana doesn't affect my mind as well as quell my spasms, because it does - that's why I only smoke after work or on weekends.

The therapeutic benefits of cannabis have been documented for 5,000 years.  The drug originated in the East, but came to western Europe when Napoleon invaded Egypt and brought ``hash hish'' back to France.

Cannabis for recreational use became illegal in 1923, although it could be prescribed as a medicine until 1932, when prohibition of it became complete.

Many attribute the ban to the pharmaceutical companies, which began to wield great power and influence at that time.  They theorize marijuana was too much competition for manufactured drugs.

Since that time, marijuana has been ``demonized,'' says noted scientist David Suzuki.

``It's obviously a very beneficial, useful drug,'' he told me last week.  The evidence of its therapeutic value is ``indisputable.''

Suzuki wants marijuana decriminalized.  ``There's good literature now that would suggest that it's time to get on with making it widely available,'' he says.

People didn't look again at marijuana's medicinal benefits until the 1970s.

Many clinical studies suggest it alleviates muscle spasticity, nausea, pain, epilepsy, glaucoma, anorexia, bronchial asthma, insomnia, depression and some psychiatric disorders.

But, without government or pharmaceutical studies, it is still not known how - or why - cannabis works.

There are more than 60 compounds, or cannabinoids, unique to marijuana.  In all, marijuana contains some 240 active ingredients.  It's likely that different compounds work for different symptoms.

The only cannabinoid that has been isolated is THC ( tetrahydrocannabinol ), the psychoactive one.  A synthetic version of THC has been created, called Marinol, but without marijuana's other unique ingredients, it's not the same.  Many people say it's not effective; others find it makes them violently ill.

Even with studies under way in several countries - including Canada, after Health Minister Allan Rock announced clinical trials would begin this year - it will still be years before cannabis is fully understood.

The real question is, what will happen in the meantime?

The medicinal benefits are well documented and widely accepted.  My own experience testifies to it and so do the experiences of my friends.

In 1995, my friend Dan was dying of AIDS.  Sitting at my dining room table, I saw his face turn green at the sight, smell or even thought of food.  Then he smoked some pot.  Within minutes, his colour returned, he smiled and dug in.

Anti-nausea drugs are okay.  Why not marijuana?

Then there was the mother of a friend of mine who got through her chemotherapy by smoking pot.

She treated each joint as seriously as she did all her other medication, except for one difference - because of the stigma, it had to be hidden from all but her family and closest friends.

She needed marijuana in order to tolerate her cancer treatment, yet - like so many people - she felt she had to keep her use of it hush hush.

That angers me.  It distresses me even more that so many people don't even try it, or worse, can't get it.

Why are pharmaceutical products so easily accepted, but this drug isn't?

Until a couple of months ago, I bought my marijuana from dealers I met through friends.  I would call a pager and get a home delivery.

I've been lucky that I've never been sold anything laced with bad chemicals.  That risk alone justifies a legally approved source.

I recently learned about Toronto's Medical Marijuana Resource Centre and, with my doctor's endorsement, became a member.

For my condition, marijuana works and my doctor acknowledges this fact.  ( So do my parents.  My mother is among the family and friends who have helped me pack, hold and light the pipe I use.  )

Through this buyer's club, I can buy marijuana that is guaranteed to be high-quality and organic.

Since joining, I've met and spoken to many people who are in the movement to decriminalize marijuana for those with medical conditions.  I have developed tremendous respect for these people who are putting themselves on the line for their beliefs.

Of course, there are some people who do use pot to excess.  But basing policy on that fact doesn't make sense.  If excessive use was a valid reason to maintain prohibition, then alcohol would still be illegal.

In fact, compared to marijuana, liquor is clearly far more destructive.

So it's ironic that it is marijuana that is still illegal.  Even marijuana used for therapeutic purposes.

If charged and found guilty of possession, most people - at least those without a previous record - will get a discharge or a small fine.  But judges have the power to send users to prison for as long as three years.  Even without being jailed, a person usually ends up with a record.

With tobacco and alcohol so universally available and acceptable, and so potentially destructive to one's health, it's ludicrous that marijuana is prohibited, even for medicinal purposes.

Like all other supporters of therapeutic marijuana, I am encouraged that this government is holding clinical trials.  But in the meantime, there are many people who could benefit from cannabis right now.

As I do.

I smoke marijuana because it improves my medical condition considerably.  And I refuse to feel fear or shame because of that.

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