Elusive Access Pushing Patients to B.C.

Rob Blair, who uses cannabis to treat a number of conditions, says "Conservative Alberta and Calgary has the... hardest judgments against this type of medicating. It's seen as taboo, as bad." (photo: Dean Bicknell, Calgary Herald)Rob Blair, who uses cannabis to treat a number of conditions, says "Conservative Alberta and Calgary has the… hardest judgments against this type of medicating. It's seen as taboo, as bad." (photo: Dean Bicknell, Calgary Herald)Once a month, Rob Blair’s green salvation is delivered to his door in a plastic baggie: 100 grams of marijuana grown especially for him.

The 41-year-old Calgarian, who suffers from chronic pain after a bad cycling crash 18 years ago, is one of several dozen city residents allowed to ingest cannabis legally.

Inside his downtown bachelor pad, he’s got a couple glass bongs and a HerbalAire vaporizer he sometimes uses to consume marijuana.

His preference, though, is “old school.”

About once every hour, he lights a joint, breathes deep, and waits for relief to seep in.

“Usually every hour I’ll medicate, that keeps my pain at bay to a reasonable five to six level,” says Blair, a medical marijuana activist in Calgary.

“It’s an avenue for quality of life via cannabis.”

It’s a road not many Calgarians are travelling.

According to data obtained by Postmedia under the Access to Information Act, 49 Calgarians applied to use medicinal marijuana between 2001 and 2007. During the same time period, 149 Edmontonians signed up, and to date roughly 4,900 patients across the country have been approved.

The Calgary patients use pot for a variety of ailments, with multiple sclerosis the most common as 14 sufferers turned to sanctioned pot.

According to the Health Canada data, cancer, spinal cord injury and disease, AIDS/ HIV and severe arthritis are also among the illnesses residents have used legal cannabis to treat.

In Calgary, the number of men is double the women permitted by Health Canada to use pot. Dosages ranging from one to 10 grams a day.

Most Calgarians with medicinal marijuana approvals had the process initiated by general practitioners – 21 of the 49 cases.

Ten years after Canada gave some patients the green light to light up, Calgary pot activists say access to the state-sanctioned plant remains elusive.

Some patients here say it’s doctors’ attitudes toward the controversial therapy that determines whether authorization papers get signed, not medical needs. They’re now turning to a province that’s been more permissive towards pot – British Columbia – to find doctors willing to sign Marijuana Medical Access Regulations forms.

In Alberta, health regulators urge doctors to be extremely wary of the unusual treatment.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta recommends physicians not prescribe cannabis to patients because of “lack of scientific evidence” on its risks and benefits and “lack of clarity surrounding civil litigation risks,” according to an online statement.

The Alberta Medical Association tells doctors to “think twice” before signing off on marijuana prescriptions.

Health Canada is currently reviewing its program and planning to overhaul the way it works, including allowing doctors alone to sign off on requests.

Dr. Lloyd Maybaum, president of the Calgary and Area Physician’s Association, says medical professionals here remain generally doubtful toward approving marijuana for patients. Not enough is known about the drug, he says. There may indeed be bona fide cases, such as extreme pain or palliative cancer care, where cannabis may help. But the potential for abuse by someone looking for a legal stash is enormous, he says.

“As physicians, there’s a lot of apprehension still regarding prescribing medical marijuana, particularly if you’re not in those designated subspecialties, chronic pain or cancer pain, those kinds of things,” says Maybaum.

“Your run of the mill physician would probably blanch somewhat at the notion of prescribing it.”

Harry, 50, suffers from severe arthritis that some days prevents him from bending over or lifting his arms over his head.

“Just constantly in pain. A lot of sleep issues,” says Harry, who asked his last name not be published.

He tried to convince his family doctor the pain warranted a marijuana authorization.

He couldn’t. Harry talked to two general practitioners and visited specialists in Calgary, but was denied the medicinal marijuana exemption.

His history of painkiller addictions didn’t help his case, Harry concedes.

The Calgarian began using street pot to assuage the aches wracking his joints.

Eleven months ago, he met a doctor who would oblige.

In January, Harry video-conferenced with a physician at a clinic in B.C. (he’s not sure exactly where in the province) who reviewed Calgary medical papers detailing the resident’s battle with arthritis, chatted for about 90 minutes, then agreed to sign the Health Canada forms.

By August, Harry had authorized pot.

Privately run clinics have begun popping up in Canada where physicians will sign the MMAR forms that can’t get approved elsewhere, but Harry says turning to another province “doesn’t make any sense.”

“There should be a clinic here in town, that you can go and see a specialist smart enough to know if you need the exempt card or not.”

Calgary once grabbed headlines in the medicinal marijuana crusade.

Local activist Grant Krieger, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, ran a notorious “compassion club” to assist other sick people by supplying them with pot. Following several run ins with the law, Krieger bowed out from public life.

Today, a discreet, informal network providing medicinal marijuana outside Health Canada rules still remains, but unlike other large cities across the country, Calgary no longer has an official compassion club.

The Calgary Medicinal Marijuana Centre run by Grant Cluff, a former high school teacher who has MS, was shuttered in 2010.

Six years ago, Keith Fagin founded Calgary 420 to network with the city’s pot smokers.

Fagin, who’s smoked for four decades, says cannabis helps deal with arthritis and chronic pain from a childhood cycling crash. He refuses to apply for an exemption, calling it “unconstitutional.”

But he helps those who want to be legit.

“I’m not going to tell a person they shouldn’t do it. A lot of people need it for peace of mind,” says Fagin.

The Calgarian helps applicants fill out the complicated Health Canada forms. He also connects patients with B.C. physicians inclined to authorize the exemption.

In the last 16 months, Fagin says he’s connected more than two dozen Calgarians with physicians in Abbotsford, Duncan and other B.C. cities.

Dr. Lori Montgomery, medical director of the Calgary Chronic Pain Centre, says specialists at the clinic will authorize an exemption, but only if clinically-proven therapies have been exhausted.

Simply put, there’s just not enough research to be certain the controversial therapy doesn’t do more harm than good, she says.

“It isn’t something we have training in and there isn’t a lot of research to base our decision on in the first place.”

In his downtown apartment, Blair acknowledges his history with substance abuse made it more difficult for him to get the pot exemption. But he says he only got the forms signed after remaining sober more than four years.

Blair argues “reefer madness” stereotypes linger in Calgary.

“Conservative Alberta and Calgary has the . . . hardest judgments against this type of medicating. It’s seen as taboo, as bad.”

On bad days, the pain from his old injuries feels like “floating shin splints throughout your body and charley horses throughout your body all the time.” On good days, the comfort from his carefully rolled joints makes life seem more bearable.

“I gave myself to the plant.”

– Article originally from The Calgary Herald.