Who Are Saskatchewan’s Medicinal Marijuana Users?

Jason Hiltz works in his medical marijuana grow-op December 7 2011. (photo: Richard Marjan, The StarPhoenix)Jason Hiltz works in his medical marijuana grow-op December 7 2011. (photo: Richard Marjan, The StarPhoenix)Health Canada data shows just 120 Saskatchewan people applied to use marijuana medicinally in the six years after the agency allowed the exemption.

After a protracted battle, the agency granted a Postmedia access to information request for records of Canadians who have applied to use the drug medicinally, including their age, gender, and approximately where they live, what condition they use the drug for, the specialty of the prescribing doctor, how much marijuana they are allowed to possess, and more. Postmedia is currently trying to gain access to the remainder of the database, which includes applications received between 2007 and 2011.

Of the 120 people with Saskatchewan postal codes who had applied by mid-2007, records indicate 87 were issued licenses, five applications were still being processed, and 24 were sent back asking for more information. About a sixth of the Saskatchewan records provided were missing most of the information, with fields like application status, dosage, and prescribing doctor listed as “unknown.”

When conventional medicine fails

The numbers are no surprise to Jason Hiltz, a medicinal marijuana advocate in Saskatoon who received an exemption in 2008 to grow the plants and take the drug. Two car crashes in 2005 and 2006 left him with a fractured vertebrae and spinal stenosis, which compresses his spinal cord, causing pain and weakness in his neck, shoulder and left arm.

Conventional pain medicines — he tried many — left Hiltz a stoned zombie who was constantly dashing to the bathroom to vomit. He was forced to close down his horticulture business.

“Any time I heard about medicinal marijuana, I was a skeptic,” Hiltz, 45, said. “It’s a hippie looking for a free ride.”

But with a friend’s prompting, he tried it. His quality of life was so poor, he felt he had nothing to lose. After smoking a joint and sleeping it off, Hiltz said he felt better than he had in two years. He would spend the next two years trying to find a doctor to prescribe him the one drug he says dulled his pain and calmed his spasms while leaving his mind lucid.

Finding a doctor willing to sign that script is a bottleneck, Hiltz said, and it’s the reason more people who want to use it medicinally have failed to successfully get an application together.

When Hiltz did find a doctor willing to prescribe cannabis, the physician said he would do it only “on the premise I tell nobody who my doctor is.”

Health Canada’s database indicates the specialty of the doctors prescribing marijuana. In Saskatchewan, 35 applications were signed by general practitioners, 24 by neurologists, and 14 by neurosurgeons. Other authorizing doctors include internists, physical medicine and rehabilitation specialists, obstetrician/gynecologists, internal medicine/infectious disease specialists, and many listed as “unknown.”

The most common reasons given for prescribing the marijuana in Saskatchewan were spinal cord injury (20 cases), multiple sclerosis (17 cases), and severe arthritis (13 cases). Also on the list are HIV/AIDS, various types of chronic pain, cancer, fibromyalgia, and people with multiple, complex conditions.

The oldest Saskatchewan person who applied by 2007 is now a 79-year-old man, and the youngest is a 30-year-old man with epilepsy. Seventy-eight per cent of applicants were male, and just 22 per cent were women.

Of the applicants who were approved to use marijuana medicinally, most were authorized to grow their own or appoint a designate to grow it for them.

To grow, or not to grow

Hiltz is authorized to grow 20 marijuana plants, which he cultivates at an undisclosed location. There’s a risk for any legally-entitled grower to become the target of break-ins or violence, he says. It’s a risk he takes because the cost of growing his own is a fraction of the $5-a-gram price tag on Health Canada’s pot, and he says the quality is better.

Tim Selenski, who runs Regina’s Head to Head Shop, has spent the past eight years cultivating extensive knowledge of the bureaucracy of medical marijuana. He now uses that expertise to run a consultancy service, called the Green Canvas, that helps people apply to obtain the drug legally, and hook them up with a safe, high-quality supply if they are approved. He reckons he’s helped at least 500 people across Canada apply during the past couple of years, and thinks the number of applicants Health Canada is reporting is likely an underestimate.

“A lot of people think they can’t get (a licence), and that’s incorrect,” Selenski said. “ … You just have to know how to apply.”

He says he’s had success connecting with doctors willing to prescribe marijuana by understanding the law, and framing patients’ cases in a way that convinces them the drug will do more good than harm. The forms must be filled out perfectly, and doctors will expect to be compensated for their time. Clients should tell their doctors they plan to vaporize or eat the marijuana, which are less harmful than smoking it, he says.

Some physicians realize providing patients access to marijuana legally is safer than patients turning to the black market out of desperation, he says.

“Nobody in the country does what I do. There are lots of people who help people get licensed for marijuana, yes. Are as many as successful as me? I’ve never met anybody.”

The database shows more applications have come from the Regina area than Saskatoon (24 versus 15) and Selenski wonders if that’s due to his activism.

Selenski is licensed to grow marijuana for two users, and he also teaches people how to set up their own cultivations. For people not able to grow their own, Selenski says he contracts out the work to farmers for a generous sum, teaches them how to grow the crop, and receives any extra crop back as a donation for needy clients. It’s all legal, he says.

“What I do is extremely controversial,” he acknowledges.

Wait a deterrent

Although Selenski may have decoded the bureaucracy, one roadblock he can’t control is the waiting period between application and approval.

He’s heard of some waiting two years before their applications were approved.

And to a person in pain, months is too long to wait, Hiltz says. For someone terminally ill, there’s no point applying at all, Hiltz says, because the legal stamp of approval may come too late.

Both men say they hope for a day when the plant’s use is legal for everyone.

Until that happens, Selenski would like to see all marijuana users apply.

“It’s an opportunity the federal government has given us,” he says. “Mr. (Stephen) Harper does not want you to get this licence. They would love to just scrap the program. If that happens, there’s’ going to be a lot of suffering people again.”

– Article originally from The Leader-Post.