Matt Young used to bust kids for smoking pot as a security officer in Calgary, but now it’s Young who’s trying to find a way to smoke marijuana in peace.
That search almost cost him his life.
Young, now living in Saskatchewan, is a former private security manager and amateur bodybuilder who wanted to be a police officer. He’s watched all that disappear as his multiple sclerosis advanced since his diagnosis at age 14.
The 28-year-old has tried every drug suggested to him by doctors in three provinces, but he said marijuana, which he only tried once or twice in high school, is the only drug that stops his spasms and lets him eat and sleep at night.
“Marijuana still doesn’t eliminate the problems, but it reduces them so I can get out of bed and play with my boy,” Young said, referring to his seven-year-old stepson.
At the end of May, Health Canada sent Young the card that allows him to legally smoke marijuana. He’s one of 100 Saskatchewan residents and 4,029 Canadians who can legally possess cannabis, according to Health Canada.
“I wish it could have been something else that helped me,” Young said, sitting beside his childhood friend and now partner, Tina Mauro, in their home north of Saskatoon. “But I’ve tried everything else.”
To legally smoke pot, one has to find a doctor willing to sign a prescription for the drug. Health Canada approves the possession licence and the prescription is filled by growing a small supply of marijuana, finding a designated holder (also licensed by the government) or buying from Health Canada.
Legal access to medical marijuana in Saskatchewan is not easily obtained, say several users and proponents of medicinal pot.
Earlier this year, the local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws blasted the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan for deterring doctors from prescribing pot. Health Canada counts 59 Saskatchewan doctors who support medical marijuana.
Young had a difficult time finding a Saskatchewan doctor to prescribe marijuana before Health Canada sent him his licence.
“A lot of damage has been done to our lives,” Young said. “If somebody reads this, maybe it’ll provide them a glimmer of hope.”
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Young grew up in Saskatchewan, but found himself in Calgary where he ran security for an office complex.
He applied to be an officer with the Calgary Police Service, but was told he was ineligible because of his multiple sclerosis, a disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
Eventually, the MS symptoms escalated and Young sought treatment. He tried a barrage of drugs prescribed by doctors. The medication didn’t work and, in 2005, after getting approval from Health Canada, he tried marijuana as an alternative.
“I got better,” Young said, while sitting in his two-bedroom bungalow in a small town north of Saskatoon.
He smoked for a year. He felt so good that he stopped smoking. He had a severe relapse and he soon found himself moving back to Saskatchewan in 2008 to live with Mauro at her suggestion. They were engaged in September 2009.
But in Saskatchewan, Young couldn’t find a doctor to prescribe marijuana. They pushed more pharmaceuticals on him, he said, but nothing worked and the drugs often made Young more ill.
“He’s the one in 100 that the drugs didn’t work for,” said Mauro, a former pharmacy technician who now works at a bank.
Young pleaded with his doctors to write him a prescription for marijuana. He’s not a man to mingle with drug dealers and Health Canada sells pot at half the price of its street value.
In January, frustrated and depressed with refusals from doctors, Young set out to kill himself. He overdosed on prescription pills at his home while his family was away.
“When I walked in the door, he stopped breathing,” Mauro said. Their son was screaming for Young to wake up while Mauro called paramedics. Young was taken to Shellbrook Hospital before a transfer to Saskatoon where he spent several days in a coma.
“The doctors didn’t think he was going to make it,” Mauro said. “He was in a coma on a Monday and on Tuesday I walked into the hospital room and he turned over and looked at me and we both started crying.”
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The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan warns doctors about prescribing medical marijuana. The treatment has plenty of anecdotal evidence but little else to back up health claims, say medical experts.
“In time, I think we’ll have a greater level of consensus, but we need more evidence,” said Dr. Peter Butt, a Saskatoon family physician and addictions specialist. “We’re in the early of days of medical marijuana and the story has yet to unfold.
“There’s limited evidence about its efficacy. We have a product being smoked, so there’s a health problem with that. Just as tobacco companies are being sued, some physicians might be reluctant to prescribe something that will also cause harm.”
There are other problems: Criminal involvement in marijuana trade and the contamination of street drugs, addiction and the trouble of measuring dosage for different patients.
But there are cases in which marijuana has helped people, especially those who are HIV positive, receiving chemotherapy or diagnosed with MS, said Butt, also an assistant professor with the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine.
There is some evidence that marijuana can help patients regain their appetite and ease nausea and chronic pain, he said.
“It can help in select cases, but that doesn’t mean it’s a panacea for all chronic pain,” Butt said.
To make marijuana use safer for patients, researchers must develop a better delivery system to avoid the health problems associated with smoking, Butt said.
“How many medications are dispensed in leaf form?” Butt said.
Some medical marijuana proponents and users believe current alternatives — sprays and pills with concentrated THC — don’t work as well as smoking.
The MS Society doesn’t recommend MS patients use marijuana, but does say that there is anecdotal evidence to support its benefits, said Laurie Murphy, the charity’s client services co-ordinator in Saskatoon.
“It can help with spasticity and pain,” she said. “But we can’t advocate for any treatment that doesn’t have the research to back it up.”
The society directs curious patients to Health Canada if they feel like marijuana is the last resort, Murphy said.
“I don’t know of many doctors in Saskatchewan who support it and many won’t even talk about it,” she said. “It’s sad they can’t access (marijuana) if they benefit from it.”
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A neurologist gave Young a prescription in February and Health Canada mailed Young his licence four months later.
Young can only pay for some of his prescription, which allows him 3.5 grams of marijuana per day. Health Canada charges Young about $600 per month to fill his prescription, half of the street value for the same amount, he said.
He’d like governments to subsidize marijuana, like provinces do for other prescriptions, for low-income people. He and Mauro are a single-income family and they run a cake decorating business on the side. The couple is trying to keep their home as they fight financial problems, Young said.
Despite the discount, Young only bought one ounce for his first purchase this year. He smoked it all by the middle of June and he can’t order more until the end of the month.
“He scrapes and conserves if there’s any residue left,” Mauro said.
Young said marijuana “is supposed to heal, but waiting for it feels like torture.”
In an email, a Health Canada spokesperson suggested licensed users grow their marijuana — it charges $20 for a packet of 30 seeds — to keep expenses low.
Young doesn’t want to grow his marijuana, although it’d be easy to do with Health Canada’s approval. He lives with a young family in a small town and fears how even a couple of marijuana plants could jeopardize his family’s security.
“I hope to fall asleep before the spasms start,” he said. Without the marijuana, Young said, his body is wracked by insomnia, spasms, nausea and eating troubles. “I feel like I’m literally losing my mind. I have a digital recorder I rely on because I’m constantly forgetting things.”
Once Young inhales the marijuana smoke, the changes are instant, Mauro said.
“The depression is gone. His thoughts are clear, concise,” she said. “He loves to write again and the appetite is there.”
“The only thing that makes it better is the marijuana,” Young said.