Why do people use medicinal cannabis and how has legalization affected them?
For all her adult life, Daisy Patten struggled daily with anxiety. Ten years ago the Dartmouth resident turned to cannabis and found relief.
“The doctor wanted to put me on all kinds of drugs,” Patten recalls. “I said, ‘let me try pot first.’ They didn’t like that idea. So, I tried it first anyway, and it saved my marriage.”
When menopause hit with a wallop just a few years later, a new doctor prescribed Effexor to treat a spike in her anxiety that accompanied the hormonal shifts. The doctor upped her dosage a year later, and Patten began experiencing hallucinations, “yucky” dreams, and near-constant illness. She weaned herself off the Effexor against the doctor’s orders, and without a medical prescription, increased her daily pot intake.
“That stuff [Effexor] might help some people, but it’s not for me,” Patten says. “I just upped my cannabis usage and it’s way better.”
Halifax business owner Carman Pirie had a similar experience.
When he was in his early 30s, Pirie developed chronic back pain. His doctor prescribed opiates. He was not a cannabis user at the time but had friends who smoked regularly. Leery of opiate use, he decided to try cannabis instead.
“And,” he says, “that was that.”
Unable to find a doctor who would prescribe cannabis, Pirie bought on the black market. Then, one day in 2011, Pirie was rolling up at the New Amsterdam Café in Vancouver and met David Easterbrook.
Easterbrook (who has since died), was a legend known in Vancouver’s cannabis scene as Guppy Fish. After sharing a few tokes, Guppy told him about an organization of canna-friendly doctors on Vancouver Island who could likely help.
One appointment, one prescription, and about 12 weeks later, Pirie’s medical-use licence arrived in the mail at his Halifax home.
When he first became a legal user, Pirie ordered his medicine from Karuna Health Foundation. This foundation is a member-based organization that serves medical users at its bricks and mortar locations in Vancouver and patients from across Canada via an online dispensary.
These days, Pirie grows his own. He cites affordability, reliable access to preferred strains, quality, and consistency as his reasons.
“Not all of my use is medical, obviously, but I think that’s one problem medical users have: they land on a strain that really works and then that strain isn’t available,” he says. “People who grow their own, obviously, get more consistency.”
Growing isn’t an option for everyone. Lack of space, prohibitive startup costs, and conflict with landlords and rental agreements, mean many medical users still face barriers to reliable access to cannabis-based treatments and medicines.
This is where an organization like Farm Assists, a Gottingen Street dispensary serving medical patients, steps in. Owned and operated by cannabis activist Chris Enns, Farm Assists initially focused on connecting medical cannabis patients to growers and providing free cannabis-based therapies to cancer patients in need.
Enns first operated from his home outside the city but soon realized there was a need for a proper dispensary to ensure patient access to the medicines they require and to fund the free oil program. He opened a not-for-profit storefront in Porters Lake known as The Halifax Compassionate Club, but after a police raid in 2013, he incorporated as Farm Assists and relocated the business to its current home on Gottingen Street.
Techically the dispensary’s operation flouts the law, but Enns believes the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in R. V. Smith (which, in part, gave medical patients the right to access medicinal cannabis in any form) has rendered their work lawful.
And Enns and his fellow activists are prepared to mount a constitutional challenge to ensure the decision is implemented and recognized federally. On the eve of what was supposed to be the start of a constitutional challenge, the Crown withdrew the case. That’s a sign to Enns that they recogize it’s an impossible battle to win.
“At the end of the day, who can actually look a patient in the eye and say they don’t have the right to use their prescribed medicine in the format they find most effective?” he asks.
After the federal government passed the Cannabis Act in June of 2018, and in the lead-up to legalization taking effect on Oct. 17, Enns witnessed increased fear within the local cannabis community. A bump in raids and prosecutions against local dispensaries meant patients had fewer options and heightened insecurities over access to the medicine they need.
“It was a big concern among patients,” Enns says. “And so right from day one, we emphasized that we’ll be here. Absolutely. Unless you know, it’s a ‘we’re in jail’ kind of thing.”
Most of the warnings circulating before legislation (like the fears legal weed will be more accessible to youth or that there will be a surge in drug-impaired driving) have so far been unfounded, but there are issues still giving people pause. Even veterans of pot culture like Pirie.
Due to new (and stricter) measures in place to curb drug-impared driving, Pirie spends less time behind the wheel. And the restricted mobility is an inconvenience.
“When I wake up in the morning, even if I’ve never smoked and I get in my car, and I drive, I am [technically] impaired,” he says. “And every medical cannabis patient is faced with that question. Am I going to get pulled over and charged?”
Patten has another concern.
She turned to cannabis again just over three years ago after having a mechanical heart valve implanted to correct mitral valve stenosis, a condition she developed after having rheumatic fever as a child. The disease causes the mitral valve to narrow, blocking blood flow to the main pumping chamber of the heart.
She was in a lot of pain, and unable to smoke post-surgery, so she tried THC-infused cookies. “They were amazing,” Patten says. “They blew me away. I learned how to make them as soon as I got better.”
She began offering treats for sale to others who needed them, which remains illegal. Prior to Oct. 17, business was booming. However, demand has slowed since legislation. Patten attributes this to customers being nervous about the black market and making the switch to legal sellers to purchase cannabis to make homemade oils, butters, and treats.
Despite the fact that selling edibles is illegal, Patten (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) says she intends to continue, even though business is down to just a few orders a month. “It isn’t about the money. I’ve helped so many people, and that’s what it’s all about,” she says.
She recounts the story of one woman who was housebound due to severe anxiety. She started using Patten’s edibles and now comes and goes normally. “Why wouldn’t you keep doing it?” Patten asks. “I make people happy. And that’s all it’s ever been about, really.”