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News (Media Awareness Project) - Canada: Illegal Medicine
Title:Canada: Illegal Medicine
Published On:1998-12-06
Source:Kitchener-Waterloo Record (Canada)
Fetched On:2008-09-06 18:46:57

Kitchener Organization Dispenses Marijuana To Chronic Pain Sufferers

After starting out with little more than high hopes last April, Jeannette
Tossounian of Kitchener now has a small office for her club, Marijuana Used
for Medicine, and about 50 registered members to whom she sells the illegal

The 23-year-old crusader operates one of only four such clubs in Canada;
the others are in Vancouver, Toronto and London. In the process, she risks
criminal prosecution.

Staff Sgt. Kevin Chalk said in an interview Waterloo regional police are
aware of the club and are obliged to charge anybody selling marijuana, even
for medical purposes. However, Chalk said, "I can't tell you we're hunting
down these people... We have to prioritize what we do and that would be at
the low end of the scale."

In the Canadian magazine Cannabis Culture, Tossounian is portrayed as a
"modern-day Florence Nightingale," dispensing marijuana to patients who
register by having their doctor verify their medical condition.

Most of the 50 members live in Waterloo Region, with a handful residing in
Guelph, Stratford and Hamilton.

"This is a start," Tossounian said during an interview in her spartan
office in Kitchener.

Below Street Prices

She has two supplies who sell marijuana to her at below-street prices. A
gram that might cost $15 on the street can be sold to club members for $5
to $10, with one gram providing somewhere between three and five joints.

Tossounian sells the marijuana in small amounts, mostly to ensure it is not
used or resold for recreational use.

Not that she's opposed to recreational smoking of marijuana, but that's not
the purpose of her club, which she tries to manage in a professional manner.

"My suggestion would be to have you talk to your doctor," she tells one
caller who's had difficulty getting the necessary paper work completed. "If
I don't have any confirmation from the doctor, unfortunately, you can't be
part of the organization."

Then she adds: "I'm sure it's just a little mix-up. It just needs a simple
phone call."

Tossounian says she gets by on odd jobs and occasional work as a graphics
artist and is studying to be a herbalist.

All Walks Of Life

Her clients include patients from all walks of life suffering a variety of
ailments like epilepsy, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, hepatitis,
migraine, arthritis and cancer.

According to an article in the Oct. 26 issue of Law Times, after hearing
expert witnesses in a recent court case, Ontario provincial court Judge
Patrick Sheppard concluded marijuana has a therapeutic effect in the
treatment of those ailments.

As for MUM, local doctors sign forms saying: "I have discussed with my
patient what I am aware of in terms of the health benefits and risks of
marijuana. I would consider prescribing it if I were legally able to do so."

Sometimes, the doctor's assistant or secretary will verify the form was
legitimately filled out, but often Tossounian talks to the doctor directly.

"I find most doctors are supportive," she says, although some are "totally
afraid to sign the form."

While marijuana may ease the afflicted, Tossounian concedes it can pose
risks to otherwise healthy people under certain circumstances.

Conflicting Views

Recent studies present conflicting opinions. But from Tossounian's point of
view, "the negative side-effect would be psychological" rather than physical.

The problem arises when people use marijuana as a form of escapism and it
becomes "a mental addiction so that they don't have to deal with the rest
of their lives," she said.

"That happens, and those people should get some kind of counseling."

She tries to get to know her members' smoking habits to help gauge their
condition and need.

They usually only have a few puffs," she said. "Nobody seems to be abusing

As well, she said, "a lot of them are lonely and they need some contact.
So, I stay for a while and talk to them."

The personal touch, however, sometimes leads to a struggle to remain
detached from their suffering.

On occasion, she'll drive a member to see a doctor or help with other chores.

"I found myself almost becoming a social worker, but I try not to be," she
said. "I'm trying my best to discipline myself, because it wears me out."

~~~~ (sidebar)~~~~


Smoking grass can help you get off drugs.

The notion may seem contradictory, but that's the view of local people who
told the Record about their use of marijuana for medical purposes.

In interviews, they also said if there is such a thing as "reefer madness,"
it prevails among society at large for outlawing any use of marijuana.

"I'm probably one of the most law-abiding citizens you could find and do a
lot of community work. But, in order to stay healthy, I have to break the
law," said Bob, an area teacher. "It doesn't seem fair."

Bob, 48, relies on marijuana to control his epilepsy, which conventional
prescription medicine cannot do because he's allergic to it.

"I almost lost my life with this epileptic medication," he said.

His doctor had no reservations about him switching to marijuana, he said.
"She told me it was the smart thing to do."

Bob and two others interviewed are members of the Kitchener club Marijuana
Used for Medicine (MUM). Like the others, Bob didn't want to be identified
because of the legal risk and social stigma.

But all three said marijuana either replaced or helped them cut back the
prescription drugs they were taking.

It wasn't necessarily easy.

Steve, 34, of Kitchener, went through a night of the shakes and vomiting
when he tried to kick his addiction to pain-killers, including morphine,
Demerol and codeine.

Helping him through the ordeal was Jeannette Tossounian , the 23-year-old
head of MUM, who refers to members as "my patients."

"She actually helped me kick the pills," said Steve, a driver who suffers
from nerve damage and a ruptured disc.

Steve's been off prescription medication for about five months now and
relies on marijuana -- after working hours -- to help control his pain.

"I'll have a couple of puffs to help me settle down and get to sleep," he
said, adding that "you don't wake up the next morning feeling hung over."

He found that after years of taking prescription drugs, "my organ inside
were just rotting away," and he developed stomach ulcers.

Nowadays, he said: "I'm off everything. The only pills I take now are

He feels healthier, sleeps better and is more physically active.

"Now, I can't attribute all that to smoking dope," he said, "but I can
attribute it to not having pills inside my body."

Doctors referring patients to MUM did so confidentially and were
unavailable for interviews.

But Steve claimed his doctor knows he was substituting marijuana for
prescription drugs, and "he thought it was excellent."

Laurie, 40, has cut back significantly, but has been unable to totally
eliminate her use of drugs. That's largely because she has severe pain from
a rare illness called arachnoditis.

Medical literature describes it as an inflammatory and sometimes agonizing
disease involving membranes of the brain and spinal canal.

Laurie's troubles began when she was a 12-year-old sprinter and suffered a
ruptured disc while training.

A series of questionable surgical procedures and now-outdated tests --
involving a risky type of myelography or dye injection -- led to the
development of the arachnoditis.

She said she also suffers from sciatica, nausea, bowel and bladder problems.

Her condition became more serious in 1978, while she was studying social
services at Conestoga College in Kitchener.

During one operation, "something horrifically went wrong," she said.

Her life hasn't been normal since, and she said she has taken prescription
drugs, mostly morphine, for 20 years.

She spends most of her time in a small Kitchener apartment equipped with a
wheelchair and hospital-type bed. At the best of times, she can walk short

Photos of loved ones sit near an old television set, which helps her while
away the night when she can't sleep.

Before joining MUM, Laurie occasionally tried to obtain marijuana on the
street. But she paid high prices for what was often poor-quality grass and
she didn't like the drug dealers. Now she gets a more regular supply of
good marijuana through MUM.

The marijuana she smokes daily eases her pain, helps her sleep, induces
appetite and alleviates nausea, she said.

Most significantly, she's not adrift in a cloud of narcotics.

"Since I gained access to marijuana, I have decreased my intake (of
prescription drugs) at least by half," Laurie said.

Said Tossounian: "When I first met her, she wasn't as coherent. Now I see
her hopping into the wheelchair and going to the mall. She's been happier.
She's been more with it and not on the heavy drugs."

As for the law that makes her use of marijuana illegal, Laurie is
incredulous: "If you're on the heaviest opiates on the market, excluding
heroine, what's the threat? That just boggles my whole mind, that marijuana
versus narcotics (argument)."

Is the grass strictly medical?

"I'm not going to lie," Laurie said. "There are times when I just want to
get high. But those times are few and far between.'

To get the most benefit from its pain relief, she said "you have to combine
it with meditation and visualization" -- techniques she learned in
pain-management clinics.

In her meditation, she employees a personal "form of praying, but not
really asking anything."

The aim is simply "to be in the moment and listen to whatever, the universe
and God. And that's a very difficult place to get to."

Checked-by: Richard Lake
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