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>SOURCE: Chatelaine Magazine >PUBDATE: November 1997 >CONTACT: http://canoe2.canoe.ca/ChatelaineInfo/feedback.html > >Rx: marijuana > >People with MS, glaucoma, AIDS and cancer say smoking pot eases their >symptoms. But is marijuana good medicine? > >By Katrina Onstad > >A year ago, Lynn Harichy, now 36, was a different person. Diagnosed at 18 >with multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic disease of the central nervous >system, Harichy was rapidly succumbing to the disorder. Periods of >blindness would come upon her; limbs would tingle and fall numb. The >mother of four was confined to a wheelchair. "It felt like someone was >breaking my bones," she recalls from her home in London, Ont. There is no >cure for MS, only treatment in the form of drug therapy. > >At one of her lowest points, Harichy read a story in the local newspaper >about a man facing charges for selling marijuana seeds. His defence >revolved around marijuana as a pain reliever for the chronically ill. >Harichy as intrigued. It had been years since she'd smoked pot, but when a >friend gave her a joint as a gift and she lit up, the effects were >immediate. Averaging a joint a day, Harichy found that the muscle spasms >that racked her body ceased; the bouts of paralysis grew less frequent, >finally vanishing. Most important for Harichy, her mental state shifted. >"I could focus," she says, and in her life, that matters: Harichy has been >on a disability pension and is training to become a lab assistant. >"Suddenly, my thoughts were clear, more organized. I could concentrate in >school because I wasn't in pain." But she didn't want to grow her own >marijuana or use drug dealers. "I have kids. I don't want to put them in >danger." > >So Harichy joined a Toronto group called CALM, Cannabis as Legitimate >Medicine, an organization that provided marijuana for those who needed it >for medicinal purposes. With a $15 registration fee and a letter of >diagnosis, people with a range of health concerns suited to marijuana >treatment – from AIDS wasting syndrome to cancer to glaucoma – could >receive cheap clean marijuana in a safe office-like environment. > >There's only one catch: it's illegal. Like the Vancouver-based Compassion >Club, CALM was based on the California model of "cannabis buying clubs." >The difference is that in California, Proposition 215, passed last >November, made marijuana use legal for certain illnesses. In Canada, it's >illegal. Period. > >"Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, marijuana can only be used >in research situations," says Bruce Rowsell, director of the drug >surveillance bureau at Health Canada. "But if you're caught cultivating or >possessing marijuana in Canada, it doesn't matter if it's for medicinal >use; you could still be charged." > >For people like Harichy, inaccessibility creates a logistical nightmare. >She couldn't drive the hundreds of kilometres to Toronto to buy her >marijuana through CALM, and delivery was often difficult. Canada Post >sometimes intercepts suspected "drug shipments," and few marijuana >proponents are willing to risk prosecution for trafficking. Harichy isn't >alone in her frustration; though no one knows how many Canadians are >relying on marijuana for pain relief, it is the most-used illegal >psychoactive drug in North America. The question is: does marijuana really >help? > >This is how marijuana works: we have receptors for >delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the chief marijuana component >responsible for the "high" – in the parts of the brain responsible for >memory, mood, motor activity and concentration. Smoking marijuana affects >those functions, but because we don't have receptors in the parts of the >brain that control basic life functions (consciousness and respiration), it >can't kill us. For those with MS and epilepsy, marijuana is reported to >reduce muscle spasms and to relieve accompanying bladder and bowel >incontinence. Many people who suffer from glaucoma – a condition usually >resulting from excess pressure in the eye that, if left untreated, can lead >to blindness – also stand by marijuana for its effectiveness in reducing >the pressure behind the eye. And the mood-improving qualities of marijuana >are said to be useful treatment for a range of chronically ill patients. > >But marijuana is regarded as most medically viable in light of its most >famous side effect: the munchies. Marijuana is an appetite stimulant, >which can be key in the control of AIDS wasting syndrome, the result of HIV >infection, which causes patients to lose 10 percent or more of their body >weight. The nausea and inability to eat can contribute to early death, but >marijuana has proven an effective antidote by making patients hungry and >hence, better nourished. > >For cancer patients too, loss of appetite and an inability to keep food >down can pose major problems. Dr. Eduardo Bruera of the Cross Cancer >Institute in Edmonton has seen these effects firsthand with his >chemotherapy patients: "I've had patients who are vomiting 30 times from >the radiation. It can rip an esophagus apart or cause dehydration." In >one U.S. survey, 78 percent of cancer patients felt that smoking marijuana >reduced their nausea. But Dr. Bruera, like many doctors, isn't convinced >marijuana is the best solution. > >"The problem with it is that it gets you high," he says. "A lot of our >patients, especially the elderly, don't want that feeling." Also, little >is known about the long-term effects of marijuana use, though the >carcinogens produced by smoking any substance can be fatal. "Legalizing >marijuana oversimplifies the care of the terminally ill," says Dr. Bruera. >"Since the mid-'90s, plenty of effective medications for vomiting have been >introduced, drugs that don't have the side effects of marijuana >derivatives. Why would I tell an ill patient to smoke something when he >can get better results elsewhere?" > >In the past few years, pharmaceutical versions of THC have appeared on the >market. Dronabinol (brand name Marinol), a synthetic version of THC, is >prescribed to AIDS patients and cancer patients with sever nausea. > >Advocates for legalizing marijuana aren't impressed. "Marinol is only one >component of cannabis," says Umberto Iorfida, president of the National >Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Canada (NORML). "Pot >doesn't consist of THC exclusively; it has more than 400 ingredients." >Hence, THC pills can cause patients to feel even more stoned than regular >marijuana. "I've talked to people with AIDS who just don't want to take >any more pills," says Iorfida. "They can't keep them down." > >Of late, the movement to legalize marijuana in Canada seems to be gaining >momentum. In Vancouver, the Compassion Club has expanded its facilities. >There, more than 100 clients regularly come by to purchase pot, discuss >alternative treatments and talk to fellow smokers. According to founder >Hilary Black, the club receives more than 15 calls a day from people across >Canada who want to use the service (they send people information and will >ship marijuana by mail to people in extreme need); at least a third of >their clients are women. "A lot of women don't feel safe using the black >market," says Black. "And if they have families, they might not be able to >afford it." > >Yet according to Health Canada, we don't know enough about marijuana's >effects to make it legal. "Most of the information out there is >anecdotal," says Rowsell. "Only when good scientific studies come forward >that say 'Yes, this drug may be useful for this disease,' should we even >consider legalizing it." > >In the meantime, however, Harichy is back to using the black market. After >a couple of months in operation, CALM closed its doors in July. According >to organizers, the HIV community they were targeting already had its own >sources, and they couldn't attract enough clients. So where does that >leave women like Harichy, who aren't connected to a marijuana subculture? >For now, Harichy is relying on friends to get it for her. "They say we >need more studies before it can be legalized, but what does that mean?" >asks Harichy. "It makes me feel better, and I know that right now." > > > > >
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