article in Woodstock paper
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Posted 29 March 2008 - 06:30 AM
Mike McGaw, president of Canadian Medical Marijuana Association, inhales marijuana smoke from a bag filled by a vaporizer. McGaw says marijuana helps him cope with pain from a workplace injury.
Coping with the pain
Health Reporter Heather Rivers speaks with the president of the Canadian Medical Marijuana Association and discovers why he doesn’t see anything wrong with illegally using marijuana to manage his chronic pain
By Heather Rivers - Woodstock Sentinel-Review
Photography By Elliot Ferguson - Woodstock Sentinel-Review
WOODSTOCK - One puff and the pain begins to subside.
After inhaling a couple more tokes of the virtually smokeless marijuana, vaporized through a special machine known as the Volcano, Mike McGaw said his chronic pain level has been reduced by 75 per cent.
It’s something he’s tried, and failed, to manage in the past with 500 milligrams of morphine a day.
"It eases my pain," he said. "It controls my muscle spasms and seizures."
McGaw, 49, has been disabled since 1989, when he said he was forced into retirement after throwing his back out - while lifting bales at work and injuring his spine and nerves.
Surgery hasn’t help relieve his chronic pain, marked by spasms and a stabbing pain in his lower back that radiates through his leg making it feel like it’s on fire.
Exhaling slowly, he comments, "I can tolerate it now."
McGaw is the president of the Tillsonburg-based Canadian Medical Marijuana Association, whose mandate is to promote awareness of cannabis as a homeopathic medicine. He ingests marijuana four or five times a day to relieve his pain.
McGaw used to be what is known as an exemptee, a person recognized by the Canadian government as suffering from "grave and debilitating diseases" for whom conventional treatments had failed and had gained the legal right to ingest marijuana for medicinal purposes.
McGaw said when his doctor refused to re-sign the forms for his exemption, he was forced to inhale marijuana illegally to manage his symptoms.
He believes most doctors in the area are prejudiced against the use of marijuana for pain relief.
"Eighty per cent (of area doctors) are against it," he said.
McGaw, who smoked marijuana openly during the interview, isn’t afraid to admit he grows his own weed but quickly adds, "It’s not in my house and not on my property."
Still, it disturbs McGaw and other marijuana advocates that to effectively manage his pain he has to commit a crime.
"Who is it harming? Where is the victim?" asks Cheryl MacLellan, co-owner of Hemp Country. "If there is no victim, there ought not to be a crime."
Those comments may be surprising coming from MacLellan who is a former Children’s Aid Society child protection worker and a former police officer in the detective’s office with the Oxford Community Police Service.
During her time on the force, MacLellan said she became disillusioned with what she refers to as "drug wars."
"They were helping no one and did nothing," she said. "Drug use has only increased. It’s much easier for a kid on the street to buy pot than alcohol."
Back in the 1980s, MacLellan launched her own investigation into the drug world and came out of it with a dependency on methamphetamines before committing to "straightening out" and going back to school.
"I quit everything," she said. "Drinking, smoking, chemicals."
Today, she is a committed member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization whose mandate is "to reduce the multitude of unintended harmful consequences resulting from fighting the war on drugs and to lessen the incidence of death, disease, crime, and addiction by ultimately ending drug prohibition."
"Putting people in jail is not a solution for social problems," MacLellan said. "Jail only makes it worse. We spend billions on drug wars and nothing has changed. Organized crime and criminals get richer from prohibition."
MacLellan refers to a 2002 Senate Committee report that questioned Canada’s policies in regards to medical marijuana and confirmed an earlier senate committee finding that "the criminalization of cannabis had no scientific basis."
PRO-MARIJUANA: Cheryl MacLellan, co-owner of Hemp Country, is currently in the midst of obtaining her exemptee license.
"Thirty years later, we confirm this conclusion and add that continued criminalization of cannabis remains unjustified based on scientific data of the danger it poses," the report read.
The commission surmised that billions of dollars have been sunk into enforcement "without any greater effect."
"However, use trends remain totally unaffected and the gap … between law and public compliance continue to widen," it read.
While the commission concluded that cannabis "has not been approved as medicinal drug in the pharmacological sense" it further stated "we do not doubt that for some medical conditions and for certain people cannabis is indeed an effective and useful therapy."
Pot proponents say that marijuana acts as an appetite stimulant, anti-asthmatic, gastrointestinal sedative, anti-epileptic, anti-spasmodic, anti-depressant and antibiotic.
It is also used to relieve muscle spasms from multiple sclerosis, the effects of cancer and HIV, and the severe pain of arthritis.
MacLellan said she often has people in their 50s, 60s and 70s come into the store inquiring about medical marijuana for dying relatives.
She helps them by printing out applications for medical marijuana, but it frustrated by the difficulty involved in obtaining the product.
After filling out a 30-page application, patients must get approvals from their doctors. Those with AIDS or cancer are rubberstamped, while chronic pain sufferers must first visit a pain specialist.
"Some doctors say no (to approval); they don’t believe in it - especially here because they are very conservative," she said.
MacLellan’s pro-marijuana stance was strengthened in 2003 after the police raided the Toronto Compassion Centre.
The centre provides a safe source of medical marijuana for those who qualify, and are in need.
MacLellan sent an e-mail to the centre apologizing on behalf of police officers everywhere.
MacLellan eventually quit the police force after she had an altercation with a mentally ill patient and suffered neck and shoulder injuries in June 2006.
Prior to her injury, MacLellan said she was a big supporter of the program but was not a marijuana smoker.
Now, she is currently in the midst of obtaining her exemptee license because "cannabis worked for me."
"It helps me with pain and sleep," she said.
One of the main complaints she and McGaw have with the current medical marijuana system is the quality of the government-regulated marijuana that sells for $150 an ounce, and, no, it’s not covered by a drug plan.
"The street stuff is better than this," she said. "But then you have to deal with the criminal element."
They also worry the government will cancel the grow permits that enable some exemptees to grow their own cannabis rather than purchase it directly.
According to Health Canada, there are currently 2,506 Canadian enrolled in the Medical Marijuana Program.
They defend the quality of the pesticide- and fungus-free marijuana they purchase from Prairie Plant Systems Inc., which is grown in an abandoned mine in Flin Flon, Man.
According to Jean Tessier, chief of media relations for Health Canada, the THC level of its marijuana is 12.5 per cent compared with the average THC levels in seized marijuana, which only reaches 10.2 per cent.
There are plenty of opponents to the legalization of marijuana.
Dr. M.L.D. Fernando, chief of psychiatry at Woodstock General Hospital, believes that legal grow permits can easily be abused.
He also said marijuana can cause serious effects in some people, including paranoid psychosis. It can also negatively affect the sperm and cause "amotivational syndrome" or a "don’t care attitude," he said.
"I’m totally against legalizing marijuana," Fernando said. "It’s a slippery slope to take. It’s a stepping stone to cocaine and other things."
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