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OP/ED: Legal changes could save lives

Grand Forks City Councillor Joy Davies
“Remember me the way I was,” that is what the note said that the policeman found on Priscilla’s bathroom counter. My God…. after 10 years of living with excruciating pain, after 10 years of doctors and specialists who put her through every pharmaceutical they could think of she took her life! But this 60-year-old mother, sister, artist, dietician, hiker, world traveler could no longer live with the pain of her neuropathic disease, erythromelalgia.
 
Her doctor had finally put her on methadone and Priscilla was addicted. The methadone made her life worse. After a long six months she got herself off it, so why would she take her life? She wasn’t terminally ill, but I know that with the symptoms of her disease and the side effects of the prescription drugs, she wished she was dead. She lost hope of relief of her symptoms.
 
How many other Priscilla’s have families lost because the majority of doctors in our great country, Canada, choose to allow their patients live in chronic torture rather than educating themselves enough to recommend that their patients try a plant that is legal in Canada for medicinal use… cannabis? This plant has been used for over 4000 years without causing one death. Politics, greed and the moral judgment of uniformed medical practitioners and politicians who choose to turn blind eyes to the over 6,000,000 Canadians who suffer from chronic pain are the root cause of the problem (Dr. Mary Lynch, president of the Canadian Pain Society.)
 
The number of practicing physicians in Canada in 2008 was 65,440 (College of Family Physicians). Only 1,977 doctors are willing to sign Health Canada applications for their patients to use medical marijuana as part of their wellness program (Health Canada, June 2009.) 
 
How can I as a citizen and politician interpret this???? When did we lose our compassion as a society? Rationally, I don’t think it is because cannabis users increase our health costs. Tobacco-related health costs work out to $800 per user and booze-related health costs add up to $165 per user. Pot-related health costs - a mere $20 per user (B.C.’s Mental Health and Addictions Journal.)
 
Marijuana and the law
 
Let’s look at some historic attitudes and decisions around cannabis. In 1922 the book The Black Candle was released. Its sole purpose was to arouse public opinion and pressure the government into creating stricter drug laws. The RCMP used this book to increase its power along with making cannabis hemp illegal under the name "marijuana" in the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act of 1923. 
 
From 1938-1961 studies on cannabis’ benefits were ignored and penalties increased. In 1938, the Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, commissioned the Greater Medical Association of New York to study the effects and use of marijuana. Their report was published in 1944 and remains one of the most comprehensive studies done on the health and social effects of marijuana smoking. The study found no relationship between crimes of violence and marijuana. The recommendations of this report were ignored. 
 
In 1954 a new offense was created in Canada - possession for the purpose of trafficking. The sentence for this crime was immediately doubled in the following year, raising the maximum penalty to fourteen years imprisonment from seven. Remember trafficking is a non-violent crime. In the early 1970's both the Canadian and American Medical Associations agreed that marijuana is not a narcotic.
 
The LeDain Commission was appointed by the government in Canada to undertake a complete and factual study of marijuana and its effects. The results of the study were presented to the government after four years and four million dollars worth of research. The Commission recognized that the use of marijuana is not linked to violent crime in any way. It also concluded that prohibitionary laws have only served to create a sub-culture with little respect for the law and law enforcement, as well as diverting law enforcement capability, clogging the judicial system, and providing a base of funds for organized crime. The recommendations of the Le Dain Commission ranged from outright legalization to small fines for marijuana use.
 
By the late 1970's there seemed to be consensus in parliament that marijuana needed to be legalized. Many politicians at this time, including Joe Clark, Pierre Trudeau, and Jean Chretien publicly stated that they would enact some form of decriminalization as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States in 1980 ruined any chance of this happening. With Nancy Reagan at the helm, the War on Drugs began in earnest once again. 1980-1992: Twelve Years of American Drug Warfare and the budget of the US Drug Enforcement Agency skyrocketed. The Canadian government deferred to the Reagan- Bush administrations as they did not want to ruffle their feathers. Over the years Conservative governments have made severe penalties in Parliament for cannabis (True North Hemp Company Ltd).  
 
In August 2000, Ontario’s court of appeal ruled that banning marijuana for medicinal purposes violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Striking down a federal law prohibiting the possession of less than 30 grams, the court rules the law violates the rights of the sick to use the drug for medical purposes. At last compassionate rules and decisions based on evidence are made. 
 
Now, Canadians will have the opportunity to try a natural medicine that will give them the gift of a better quality of life than they have been able to attain through the use of prescription drugs and, they can grow it in their gardens or get this medicine at a drug store like all other medicines. Tears of joy are shed. Unfortunately, here we are 10 years later and we watch compassion turn into an illusion.
 
Why I came ‘out’ as a pot-head
 
The story of Priscilla is real. Priscilla was a dear friend to me for 20 years. I miss her. After the shock of Priscilla’s death I decided I needed to ‘come out of the closet’ for my medical cannabis use supported by my doctor through a compassion club. 
It was difficult for me to “go there”…to become a ‘pot-head’ as so many would see me as. Even though I was not a pot user in life before illness, I knew the judgment I would face from friends and church if anyone knew. But I knew how I was able to get off 13 prescription drugs which never worked to relieve my symptoms and made me feel like a zombie.
 
I wanted to believe the prescription drugs would help. That is what I was told by my doctors. The drugs didn’t work and I became isolated. I lost everything of importance to me, just as Priscilla did. Our lives were parallel for a few years.
The difference was that my doctor allowed me the opportunity to try cannabis and hers didn’t. It worked for me. I got my life back for the most part and cannabis is the most important of piece of my healing. 
 
I moved away from the city to Grand Forks B.C., a beautiful little town where I believed my reduction of symptoms would continue. I started a little home-based business and ran for city council in 2008. I got elected. 
 
Priscilla died on Dec. 1, 2008 the night that we elected officials were installed to our positions. In March 2009 I went public with my medical use of cannabis at a city council meeting. While my proposed a resolution to take the issue to UBCM to find a solution was defeated, I continue my public advocacy for dignified, local access to medical cannabis. I research, work with doctors attempting to inform them why they should be more open to this harmless medicine. I started a medicinal cannabis support group and was amazed at the number of senior citizens that came for information and assistance in completing their Health Canada forms to have legal access to this medicine.
 
Canadian system says its legal but the system doesn’t work
 
We are so lucky in Canada to have a federal policy to allow us to legally attain cannabis for medical purposes. However, the bureaucratic system set up federally doesn’t work. Currently a patient has to wait up to 6 months to get their initial license or renewal license processed. From 2001 to2009 only 4029 patients have received a license through Health Canada. People die in 6 months.
 
Although they are by law required to have the licenses out in 10 weeks, this is not happening. As a result of the system’s problems, legitimate patients end up with swat teams at their doors for all the neighbours to see. Too often their medicine is ripped out of the ground and they are sent to the street to purchase unknown cannabis strains which may or may not help their symptoms at a price they cannot afford. 
 
We need to find a solution to this system that victimizes people who are already victims.
 
A vision for utopia
 
What could that system look like? My “utopist” vision would include a doctor signing a one page form authorizing their patient to use cannabis for their medical symptoms. The patient would take this form to a provincial office; pay a user fee of between $20 - $100, depending on the patient’s financial ability to pay. The clerk would stamp the doctor’s form and the patient would be legal. 
 
They would go to their local compassion club/dispensary, just as they would to a pharmacy, and with the assistance of the trained staff, select the strain most likely to benefit the patient, in the form the patient can use. This could be gel capsules, tinctures, oils, the plant buds, creams, butter or baked goods. The patient would also have the choice to grow their medicine, belong to a medicinal cannabis co-operative or provide a designated grower/care giver. The patient lives without fear of prosecution or stigmatization. The provincial office forwards the relevant paper work to Health Canada. If there are any problems with the paper work then it is sorted out while the patient continues to benefit from their medication.
 
In the State of Oregon there are over 30,000 patients receiving access to their medicine through a system like this. Their user fee pays for the State’s budget to run the program and the program is set up for the needs of the patient not the needs of the bureaucratic system. The system is compassionate. No one needs to go to court to force the State to get their applications and renewals approved. The doctor/patient relationship remains as it should… between doctor and patient.
 
There is nothing more upsetting to me than to hear the statistic that in Canada over 10,000 people a year die in hospitals from the side effects of prescriptions drugs properly administered (Statistics Canada.) These souls did not die from their diseases. It breaks my heart to hear of a 29-year-old man dying because he bled out, a side effect of the prescription drugs he was taking for his cancer. He could have been using cannabis, which in 4000 years has never killed anyone.
 
Do we need prescription drugs? Of course we do. We also need cannabis. We need to have the best quality of life possible until the day we die.
 
There are approximately 22 Compassion clubs across Canada. Although illegal by law, they serve approximately 60,000 patients with their doctors’ written permission. With the federal government working co-operatively with the provincial governments and territories in Canada, we can solve this problem. We just need the political will to do so. We need to make decisions for our people based on scientific evidence, not on moral judgment.
 
I urge you to contact your municipal politicians. Educate them with the facts; ask them to be part of the solution. Bring facts and studies to your doctors so they also will stand up with you and be your health advocate rather than the nail in your coffin.

Joy Davies is a Grand Forks city councillor, and medical marijuana activist. She wrote this article for the Cannibis Digest and it is reprinted with permission.

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