HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Weeding Out Pain
Pubdate: Sun, 18 Oct 1998
Source: Edmonton Sun (Canada)
Copyright: 1998, Canoe Limited Partnership.
Author: Doug Beazley


It's a grey autumn day, and a damp wind's chasing dead leaves across
the lawn. Mary sits and watches the leaves through the window, browses
through a week-old Chatelaine, takes shallow breaths from the oxygen
tube strapped beneath her nose. Mary's dying of breast cancer - she's
had it for 15 years.

Twin mastectomies only slowed it down. She's living in the company of
a lot of other critically ill people in a community shelter she
doesn't want to see named - any more than she wants her own true name
in print.

At 53, her wishes are as simple as they are beyond reach: money enough
to live on her own again, money enough for marijuana to kill her pain.

"This is where marijuana has brought me ... because of how I had to
live to get it," she says, sparking up a filter-tip in the shelter's
tiny smoking room.

"What I had to spend on it, because it's against the law. Marijuana
was the only thing that made life bearable, and now I can't get it. I
don't have any money. I don't have anyplace else to go."

Cancer made a victim of Mary twice: first by slowly eating away at her
life, and second by giving her the kind of pain only pot could cure -
at least temporarily.

"It helps the pain, the sleeplessness, elevates my mood, my energy, my
appetite," she says.

"Doing without never used to be an option."

The law doesn't discriminate between people who smoke grass for sport
and those who use it to cope with the symptoms of killing or chronic

But pot-smoking's hardly rare among the seriously ill in Edmonton -
particularly with people with chronic pain.

People like Patrick Gignac, a 29-year-old unemployed glazier busted by
RCMP last month for growing marijuana in his Leduc home. He's waiting
on a court date.

"Look, I'm not even a drinker," he says. "I smoked pot when I was a
teen, or at parties, but that was seldom.

"When I got hurt, the doctor told me there was a 30% chance I'd never
be able to use my arms for work again. My life was basically screwed.
Marijuana helps me feel and live like a normal person."

Gignac says he managed to destroy his shoulder joints over the years
with a series of bad falls.

Bursitis, tendinitis and rotator cuff damage made his limbs too weak
for him to handle a desk job, let alone construction work. "I've had
the shoulders operated on twice," he says. "They had my arm completely
off at the shoulder once, trying to rebuild the joint.

"I was 130 pounds ... I'm six feet tall. I couldn't lift five pounds.
At times my whole neck and back would just seize up in one big muscle
cramp. I was on six types of medication - three drugs for the pain,
and three to deal with the side effects of the first three. I was sick
all the time, every day."

In 1992, Gignac started smoking grass regularly for his pain. The
effects were immediate, he says. For one thing, he needed fewer pills.

"I was at a point where a doctor told me the next step was morphine.
Well, what the hell do you do when the morphine stops working?" he
says. "No thanks. The marijuana killed the nausea I was getting from
the drugs ... I was never supposed to be able to do any physical work
ever again. I got my glazing ticket back and I went back to work.
Marijuana was the difference between being basically useless and
living a normal life."

Gignac plans to fight his drug charge by arguing that he has a medical
right to marijuana use protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It's a legal defence that's already set a precedent in the case of pot
user Terry Parker, who beat charges of cultivation and possession in
Toronto last year by arguing he needed the marijuana to control his
epilepsy. And the scientific evidence supporting the medical use of
marijuana to treat the symptoms of cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis
and other diseases is growing.

A top pain specialist in Edmonton's medical community says she has
evidence, soon to be published, that points to a whole new therapeutic
application for cannabis in people with certain types of muscle disorder.

Dr. Helen Hays partnered with a local physiotherapist in a three-month
study of a patient with a rare muscular condition that causes
cramping, tremors and extreme weakness. The patient frequently smoked
pot to take the edge off his symptoms. Hays' study suggests the weed
was actually increasing his physical strength as it reduced his
crippling pain.

"That's what was so intriguing - we've never heard of anybody getting
a result like that," she says.

"But it's a scientific fact ... our tests showed his strength
increased when he was using cannabis."

There's little mystery about pot's effect on pain. A set of receptors
in the brain - the same nerves that cannabis use engages, says Hays -
also play a significant role in how people sense pain.

And doctors have long been able to prescribe marijuana derivatives for
pain and nausea.

Synthetic versions of pot's hallucinogenic component THC are extremely
costly, though, and rarely covered by private medical plans.

But the effect of marijuana on physical strength is a mystery - one
that strengthens the case for at least a medical dispensation for
marijuana use among the chronically ill, says Hays.

"Look, a lot of the people I see in my practice have run the gamut
from acupuncture to physiotherapists to naturopaths, with no success,"
she says. "They've spent vast sums on their pain. I know many of them
are using (marijuana) and don't want to mention it ... I don't always
ask. I think the time has come to have a national debate about what
we're going to do with the marijuana law. We have to be cautious ...
but the time has come to talk about it."

For Mary, it's a simple enough matter of the federal government
learning to mind its own business.

"Marijuana is just a weed. People don't kill people on it, they don't
rob banks. I met a lot of people on marijuana who wouldn't have been
worth two cents without it. But the government's got to blackmail you.
You use their drugs or you don't use any drugs at all."
- ---
Checked-by: Patrick Henry