Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

This joint relieves pain, but if you try to pull a fast one, you'll be the one getting smoked

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BRANDON -- During Prohibition, some people could still obtain alcohol legally, only not through the local pub or liquor store.

They got it from a pharmacy. People would go to a doctor for a prescription to consume liquor for, ahem, "medicinal purposes," wink, wink.

Almost a century later, Manitoba's medical marijuana clinic has heard some doozies, too.

One patient wanted a marijuana prescription for a broken finger. Jade Ridge, who runs the Canadian Medical Marijuana Clinic in Brandon, Manitoba's only cannabis clinic, told him in so many words where he could stick his finger.

Another rejected applicant complained of feeling blue but did not have clinical depression. Perhaps the most common ruse is people seeking a medical marijuana prescription for back pain.

"We had a couple bad backs and we sent them for X-rays and they were totally fine. They had mild curvature," said Ridge.

It's not like when you phone in sick, sound like you're dying and rattle off symptoms you plagiarized from an online medical site. Here you have to back up your application with medical reports, charts, X-rays and MRI results. You will likely have to show proof you have tried more conventional therapies. For back pain, you have to show you've tried treatments such as physiotherapy, chiropractic therapy and acupuncture.

"I'm pretty tough. I like to think I am," Ridge said. "As much as I'm in favour of legalizing marijuana for recreational use, I have to stay within the boundaries (of the Canada Health medical marijuana program, that began in 2001)."

The clinic was staggeringly busy in 2012. The number of Manitobans authorized to possess marijuana for medical purposes shot up more than 200 per cent, from 141 on Jan. 31, to 443 by year's end, according to Canada Health figures. Most of those approvals are coming from the Brandon clinic.

Ridge estimates the clinic has approved about 400 applicants for medical marijuana use since it opened almost three years ago, but most of the approvals were in the last year.

The Brandon clinic is legitimate, trustworthy and one of the top such services in Canada, says Sean Best, a licensed medical marijuana user, grower and activist based in the Interlake.

"There are doctors, out of mostly British Columbia, who are like snake oil salesmen. They charge exorbitant prices and Skype with you" for $1,000, and that's just a referral, said Best.

The CMMC charges $500 but will waive the fee on altruistic grounds when ability to pay is a factor. Other physicians are charging anywhere from $250 to $6,000 for an assessment, said Ridge.

Ridge runs the clinic with her general practitioner boyfriend. (She asked that his name not be used so people don't phone his doctor's office. The proper procedure is to go through the CMMC.)

The clinic doesn't have a storefront. Ridge reviews applicants' records and makes sure patients have all their paperwork in order. The doctor then assesses the patients in person outside his regular hours.

They also make regular visits to Winnipeg, setting aside time to see 15 to 20 applicants in a day. Many Winnipeggers don't wait -- they make a beeline to Brandon for their assessment.

Manitobans with chronic pain such as arthritis and ailments from cancer to multiple sclerosis to HIV are lining up at CMMC. Cancer patients often lose their appetite when undergoing chemotherapy. "You need your appetite to get healthy. With cannabis, everyone knows you get the munchies," said Ridge, who saw one cancer patient bounce back from 85 pounds to her normal weight of 120 pounds by using cannabis.

CMMC also gets regular referrals from the Health Sciences Centre Pain Clinic in Winnipeg. You can also use medical marijuana as an anti-depressant, but you currently need approval from a psychiatrist and a general practitioner (that will change in 2014 when you will only need a physician).

"The main difficulty is finding physicians willing to sign the forms," said Ridge. Most doctors just feel they don't know enough about marijuana to approve it. There are also some who are militantly opposed to it.

One doctor refused to see a patient anymore because the patient inquired about medical marijuana. "If you can't talk to your own health-care worker... You should be able to talk about anything," Ridge said.

CMMC's doctor has researched medical marijuana and taken online courses. He is often contacted by other physicians with queries on the subject.

Ridge, 37, a medical marijuana user herself, was prompted to become an advocate after seeing people's distress. "The biggest complaint I get is people say no one will listen to them," she said. "I choose to be a voice because it's helping people -- they look to me for representation."

She gets a lot of thank-yous: "It's been a really humbling experience. I've had patients cry or be completely ecstatic" after being approved to use medical marijuana. Ridge does followup phone calls with all the patients to see whether the treatment is working.

Clinic patients range in age from 18 to 80. "We have a huge market with the older generation. Most of them are of the hippie generation. Now they're suffering things like MS, arthritis, glaucoma."

Patients either obtain a licence to grow the medical pot themselves, have a friend or family member grow it, or purchase it through Health Canada.

Ridge has used medical marijuana since 2007. She did one of those skydiving adventures and a bad landing injured her for life -- Ridge broke her femur and now has titanium rods and pins in her hips. She was using up to 15 Tylenol 3s per day but she finds marijuana more effective.

"I don't medicate to get high. I medicate to ease the pain," she said. Then she smiled. "Unless it's a Saturday night," she quipped, breaking into a laugh.

The clinic has a website and can be reached at: canadianmedicalmarijuanaclinic@gmail.com.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Medical marijuana in Canada

Facts on medical marijuana, up to Dec. 31, 2012:

 

Number of persons who hold an Authorization to Possess Dried Marijuana in Canada: 28,115

Number of persons who hold a Personal-Use Production Licence in Canada: 18,063

Number of persons who hold a Designated Person Production Licence in Canada: 3,405

Number of persons in Canada who have indicated they will access dried marijuana and/or marijuana seeds from Health Canada for medical purposes: 5,283

 

-- source: Health Canada

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2013 A4

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