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CN ON: MS Sufferer Battles to Get Cannabis

Pubdate: Wed, 05 May 2004
Source: Oshawa This Week (CN ON)
Copyright: 2004 Oshawa This Week
Author: Lesley Bovie


OSHAWA-- It's the only thing that makes life bearable, but it has made Jillian a criminal.

Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis three years ago, the 25-year-old relies on her daily puffs of marijuana to control her pain and the side effects from prescribed medication.

The injections of Interferon Beta-1a, which she must take three times a week to curb her attacks, put her into an emotional tailspin, from fits of rage to crying jags. The medication burns and causes her skin to swell.

"Jillian told me today she just wants to put in her finger and dig to get the battery acid out," said her husband Matt, his eyes welling up. "That's the first time she's ever been able to put into words her pain."

The 26-year-old is frustrated by the lack of education surrounding the medicinal value of marijuana. He prefers to call it "cannabis" and says such words as "pot" and "marijuana" paint medicinal users, including his wife, as druggies.

Once a recreational user, Jillian said it's not about getting high anymore.

"It's about eliminating the pain so I'm still able to function," she said. "I'm 25 years old. I want to do what my friends are doing."

Married for seven years, the couple, who asked that their last name not be used, lived in Nelson, B.C., until they recently came home to Oshawa for the support of family. The use of cannabis as an alternative medicine is much more accepted out west, they said. "Compassion clubs" help distribute affordable and high-quality cannabis to those who need it and who have a letter from their doctor exempting them from prosecution under marijuana possession laws.

The same clubs here in Toronto require the Health Canada exemption form, which would allow Jillian to smoke cannabis legally. But her new neurologist in Ontario has refused to sign the medical declaration.

Health Canada currently allows exemptions for those who have less than a year to live ( Category 1 ), those who have one of seven major illnesses, including epilepsy, AIDS, cancer and MS ( Category 2 ), and other illnesses such as colitis, anorexia, depression and fibromyalgia ( Category 3 ).

But due to the lack of medical research on cannabis, the Ontario Medical Association ( OMA ) and the Canadian Medical Protective Association have advised doctors and specialists not to sign the medical declaration forms for Category 2 and 3 patients until further studies have been conducted.

Dr. Ted Boadway, the OMA's director of health policy, said the medical declaration forms ask the impossible of doctors. With very little research available, there's no way a doctor can attest to the long-term benefits or negative effects of using cannabis medicinally. Drug potency also varies widely from batch to batch, making a recommended daily dosage difficult, he said.

"We don't want doctors to be forced to sign untrue statements. Their reputations are important," Dr. Boadway said.

All of these concerns were expressed to Health Canada by doctors before the forms were created, he said. Dr. Boadway said he believes the federal government has put doctors in the uncomfortable position of having to be the unofficial gatekeepers of medicinal cannabis.

Health Canada is aware of the problem and is currently working on changes to the forms after hearing from a number of "stakeholders," said ministry spokesman Catherine Saunders. Those changes are expected by the fall of 2004, she said.

According to the Office of Cannabis Medical Access, a federal agency overseeing medicinal cannabis, 717 Canadians are currently allowed to possess marijuana for medical purposes. A total of 310 doctors in Canada - 117 in Ontario - have supported exemptions for patients.

Research is currently being conducted by the federal government at McGill University to look at the benefits of using cannabis, said Ms. Saunders.

"There is no scientific data at this point. There have been lots of anecdotal reports but marijuana, to date, is still considered a controlled substance," she said.

Alison Myrden, who sits on the board of directors for Canadians for Safe Access, has little faith in Health Canada's pledge to fix the problem. The federal government moves slowly when it comes to medicinal cannabis, she said.

She points to international research that she said has proven cannabis a safe and effective pain reliever for people with MS. A long-time activist for medical marijuana, Ms. Myrden said it's important for Health Canada to provide affordable, high-quality cannabis to those who need it.

Her own battle with MS requires 12 ounces of cannabis a month. An ounce can cost up to $300 on the street, she said.

For Matt and Jillian, who get cannabis couriered to them regularly from a compassion club in Nelson ( they only pay the shipping ), supply isn't the problem. Without a proper exemption, the couple risk being arrested for possession each time Jillian smokes. And living in her parents' non-smoking apartment building, she can't light up at home.

"It's something I don't want my wife to have to worry about. It's added stress and it just makes her illness that much worse," Matt said.

As for doctors who refuse to sign the exemption forms, Matt said, to him it's simple.

"As a physician, their No. 1 goal should be looking out for their patients," he said. "They don't seem to have any trouble doling out synthetic drugs to my wife."

It's worth noting that since hearing about Matt and Jillian's plight, Ms. Myrden has offered to refer the couple to a neurologist who is willing to sign off on the medical declaration forms.

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