Pubdate: Mon, 09 May 2005
Source: Hamilton Spectator (CN ON)
Copyright: 2005 The Hamilton Spectator
Author: Eric Bailey, The Los Angeles Times
Note: 6 other versions of this article printed between 28 April and 9 May 
may be seen at
Cited: Drug Policy Alliance
Cited: The Institute of Medicine report
Cited: G.W. Pharmaceuticals
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Chronic Pain)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Walters, John)

A Toke Tames Their Pain


Seattle - Betty Hiatt's morning wake-up call comes with the purr and 
persistent kneading of the cat atop her bedspread. Hiatt blinks awake. It 
is 6 a.m., and Kato, an opinionated Siamese who Hiatt swears can tell time, 
wants to be fed.

Reaching for a cane, the frail grandmother pads with uncertain steps to the 
tiny alcove kitchen in her two-room flat.

Her feline alarm clock gets his grub, then Hiatt turns to her own needs.

She is, at 81, both a medical train wreck and a miracle, surviving cancer, 
Crohn's disease and the onset of Parkinson's. Each morning Hiatt takes more 
than a dozen pills.

But first she turns to a translucent orange prescription bottle stuffed 
with a drug not found on her pharmacist's shelf -- marijuana.

Peering through owlish glasses, Hiatt fires up a cannabis cigarette with a 
wood-stem match. She inhales. The little apartment -- a cosy place of 
knickknacks and needlepoint -- takes on the odour of a rock concert.

"It's like any other medicine for me," Hiatt says, blowing out a cumulus of 
unmistakable fragrance. "But I don't know that I'd be alive without it."

With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to soon rule on whether medical 
marijuana laws in California and nine other states are subject to federal 
prohibitions, elderly patients such as Hiatt are emerging as a potentially 
potent force in the roiling debate over health, personal choice and states' 

Since 2001, Canada has issued 753 marijuana licences for terminally ill or 
chronic pain patients.

Users grow it themselves, or get it directly from a certified grower or the 
government. The program has been sharply criticized by both users and the 
courts as restrictive.

In the U.S., no one knows exactly how many old folks use cannabis to 
address their ills. But activists and physicians say they probably number 
in the thousands.

And unlike medical marijuana's younger and more militant true believers, 
the elderly are difficult for doubters to castigate as stoners.

Their pains are unassailable. Their needs for relief are real. Most never 
touched pot before. As parents in the counterculture '60s, many waged a 
generation-gap war with children getting high on the stuff.

Now some of those same parents consider the long-demonized herb a blessing.

Patients contend cannabis helps ease the effects of multiple sclerosis, 
glaucoma and rheumatoid arthritis.

It can calm nausea during chemotherapy.

Research has found that cannabinoids, marijuana's active components, show 
promise for treating symptoms of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's, 
perhaps even as anti-cancer agents.

A recent AARP poll found that 72 per cent of people aged 45 or older 
believed adults should be allowed to use cannabis with a physician's 
recommendation. (The poll found a similar proportion staunchly opposed to 
legalizing recreational pot.)

Even conservative elders such as commentator William F. Buckley and former 
Secretary of State George Shultz have supported marijuana as medicine.

Hiatt and those like her are "more and more the face of the marijuana 
smoker," says Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates 
treating cannabis like alcohol: regulated, taxed and off-limits to teens.

"There's this sense that when you get old enough, you've earned the right 
to live your own life," Nadelmann says.

"The mantra of the drug war has been to protect our kids. But the notion of 
a drug war to protect the elderly? That's ludicrous."

Stories of suffering elders are not lost on John Walters, U.S. President 
George Bush's point man for the war on illegal narcotics.

But as he beats the drum for psychotropic abstinence, the drug czar doesn't 
mince words.

"The standard of simply feeling different or feeling better" does not make 
pot safe and effective medicine, says Walters, director of the White House 
Office of National Drug Control Policy.

People who abuse illegal drugs such as crack cocaine feel a similar burst 
of euphoria, he notes, "but that doesn't make crack medicine."

Congress and federal drug regulators have repeatedly rebuffed pleas to 
legalize the medical use of cannabis, which is classified as a dangerous 
Schedule I drug, along with heroin and LSD.

Walters argues there is not a whiff of clinical proof qualifying smoked pot 
as medicine. Any beneficial compounds that do exist in the leafy plant, he 
says, should be synthesized, sent through the rigours of the regulatory 
process and packaged as a pharmaceutical, not smoked like black-market weed.

"This is not like growing a rosebush in your yard," Walters says. "This is 
a plant the products of which are used for serious and expensive abuse 
among illegal drugs."

Hiatt isn't seeking a recreational high at this early hour, with much of 
Seattle asleep.

She received a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2001. Chemotherapy left her a 
wreck. She threw up antinausea drugs, so her oncologist suggested cannabis, 
legal for medical purposes in the state of Washington.

"I thought he was a little off track," she recalls. "I had never done 
anything like that. I was very uneasy."

A few puffs of pot smoke each morning help quell the nausea caused by her 
prescription drugs, she says. Her appetite is restored and she never gets high.

Her two granddaughters, aged 18 and 20, display a ho-hum attitude about 
Granny toking up.

"It's just totally the norm," says Jessica, the older of the two.

Hiatt's son Doug, a defence attorney, endorses his mother's use of medical 
pot, picking up her cannabis every few weeks from a collective.

Her other son doesn't share that unfettered faith. Dan Hiatt, an assistant 
district attorney in Atlanta, was shocked to learn his mother was seeking 
relief from a drug that has landed many a pusher behind bars, his mother 
recalls. (Dan Hiatt declined to be interviewed.)

But he never tried to talk her out of it, Betty Hiatt says. "I don't think 
he likes it, but he accepts it. He loves me. He knows I wouldn't be doing 
it for fun."

Hal Margolin, 73, claims the same dependency.

Pain drove the Santa Cruz, Calif., man to the drug. It began a decade ago, 
as the cervical vertebrae at the top of Margolin's back calcified, 
strangling a bundle of nerves and producing a searing sensation in his 

His feet can feel as if scalded by boiling water.

Margolin tried to address the unrelenting agony the standard way, buying 
maxi-packs of Advil and Aleve. An operation made things worse. He lost the 
feeling in his fingers and the soles of his feet, and at times he was 
reduced to crawling to the bathroom.

Despite a prosperous retirement, a good marriage and two happy grown 
children, Margolin contemplated suicide.

He tried pot at a friend's urging. A few tokes and the pain seemed to 
recede to the background, Margolin says.

Finding marijuana early on was no easy task. At times, the bald and 
bespectacled retiree was forced out on the streets to score his weed.

Dressed in a cardigan sweater against the coastal cool, he would amble 
along the ramshackle blocks adjacent to the town's Boardwalk.

Mustering his courage, Margolin would approach one of the street kids he 
figured was dealing. Most of the time they scoffed.

"They thought I was some kind of undercover cop," he says.

Now he gets his cannabis from a Santa Cruz dispensary serving 200 patients, 
many terminally ill.

In a decade of operation, the cannabis co-operative has lost more than 150 
clients to cancer, AIDS and other ills. A woman who used pot to tame the 
painful aftereffects of polio died last year at 93. Margolin now is among 
the oldest.

For him, marijuana has been "the difference between clinical depression 
from the pain, and carrying on with my life."

Although it was part of the U.S. pharmacopoeia early in the 20th century, 
cannabis was outlawed during the Depression. In recent decades, advocates 
have repeatedly failed to gain federal approval for doctors to prescribe 
the herb.

An exhaustive 1999 study by the National Academy of Science's Institute of 
Medicine concluded that marijuana can help curb pain, nausea and 
AIDS-related weight loss. The study warned against the toxic effects of the 
smoke, but said cannabis could be given under close doctor supervision to 
patients who don't respond to other therapies.

Now several small drug companies are pressing forward with prescription 
forms of the drug, such as the cannabis mouth spray that G.W. 
Pharmaceuticals of Britain is expected to soon begin marketing in Canada.

Some have already found ways around lighting up.

Catherine Ballinger, 94, saw a busy retirement undercut by infirmity.

A fiercely independent woman who worked for years as a technical 
illustrator during the heyday of Southern California's aerospace industry, 
Ballinger lives in pain.

Her right hip and knee grind bone on bone and arthritis bedevils her. She 
can hardly walk.

Pain forced the Torrance, Calif., woman to give up a beloved hobby, 
painting seascapes while perched on the Pacific bluffs.

She was never a smoker, so her doctor recommended trying cannabis baked 
into brownies. Her agony shrank, Ballinger says, allowing her to sleep. 
Although no miracle cure, the brownies made life tolerable.

"If those guys in Washington had the pain I suffer," she says, "they 
wouldn't put up all these legal barriers for patients to obtain medical 

Among medical marijuana's biggest blocs are AIDS patients, including many 
longtime survivors edging toward old age.

Keith Vines received his diagnosis of the disease in 1986. He nearly died 
in 1993. When pills didn't help, his physician recommended marijuana.

Now he would love to sit down with Walters or the president, close the door 
and talk.

He'd tell them about losing friends and feeling despair.

He would talk about retiring early from a job he loved, after AIDS 
compromised his short-term memory.

He'd ask that they stop fighting the sick and elderly.

"Survival," Vines says, "is struggle enough." 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake