Gerald Lacroix says it was tough financial times, including losing his job working in auto parts, that landed him in a single-room-occupancy hotel in the Downtown Eastside four years ago. He was in that tiny space in April 2012 when, after hours of pouring sweat and becoming so weak he could barely stand, he called 911. Once he was in the ambulance, he says, his heart “exploded”.
“When I got to the hospital, they opened me up to figure out what to do with me,” Lacroix says in an interview at a coffee shop near his home at the corner of Main and Hastings streets. “They had phoned my family and said, ‘Come and get his belongings,’ figuring I wasn’t going to make it.”
But Lacroix says he woke up three days later with 170 staples across his chest, having survived a heart and single-lung transplant. He lifts up his shirt to reveal a scar running from under his left armpit all the way across his chest and around his back to his spine. On the front of his torso is a rib that sticks straight out to the right side of his body, resembling a drumstick. The rib had become askew during the procedure and stayed that way.
Lacroix spent the next month in hospital, and for months thereafter once home, he took several different types of pain medication, which left him feeling exhausted and nauseated. He says it wasn’t until this past May, when he discovered the Healing Tree—a medical-marijuana dispensary in the Downtown Eastside—and started taking the substance that he started to feel better.
“I honestly believe it turned the corner of my life,” Lacroix says. “Before, I couldn’t have made it to the end of the street and back, I was so fatigued. I had lost so much weight, I was down to 130 pounds. I was taking eight pills four times a day—32 pills. And there was depression, obviously. I have a rib sticking out of my body. Anytime I go to do anything, I’m in pain.
“I’ve been able to stop taking my medications since I started taking medicinal marijuana,” Lacroix adds. “It’s also helped me emotionally and spiritually.”
He continues to take pot for pain relief and to help him sleep. “I definitely need marijuana in the middle of the night,” Lacroix says. “With this rib sticking out, I still only get about one hour of comfortable sleep, even if I’m lying there for 10 hours.”
Lacroix is one of thousands of Canadians with serious medical issues who don’t respond well to conventional treatment and who’ve turned to medical marijuana. At a time when a campaign is under way in B.C. to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of pot, it may soon be harder for people who’ve been approved to use medical marijuana to access it. New rules will change the way the product can be purchased and will likely increase costs significantly.
Under Health Canada’s “Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations”, which will come into effect next April, patients will have to purchase via mail order from a licensed producer. According to the Medicinal Cannabis Resource Centre, prices are expected to increase by as much as four times the current price, which it says will impact people who receive disability benefits, in particular.
Dori Dempster, executive director of Vancouver’s Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary, uses medical marijuana daily herself and is concerned about the impending changes.
“The trouble is they don’t have any of the growers in place as of yet, leaving very little time for any proper implementation of the proposal and certainly no time for a variety of crops to be made available to the public—the very public that mostly won’t be able to afford the mail-order program or do not wish to receive their medicine that way,” Dempster tells the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
She points out that barriers to accessing medicinal marijuana leave people no choice but to buy the substance on the street. That means they don’t know exactly what’s in their weed. Plus, taking the wrong type can have negative side effects.
Dempster started taking medicinal marijuana several years ago for pain, depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. She says it was through Commercial Drive’s B.C. Compassion Club Society that she learned that there are different types of marijuana, indica and sativa, and that some products are blends. “They were able to show me that a bag of pot can be a bag of medicine if used properly,” Dempster says. “Often when we hear of people with heart palpitations or becoming paranoid, it’s because they’re smoking the wrong cannabis.
“When you buy it off the street, you don’t know what you’re getting,” she adds. “The amount of weed we reject is much greater than the amount we buy. There’s a lot of junk out there. A lot of people just want to make some money, they’re not paying attention, and they present to us a moldy product. We have a microscope and everything gets looked at very carefully. The stuff that doesn’t make it on our menu is, in our opinion, suspect.”
Proponents of medicinal marijuana got a boost recently when CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, changed his mind on this topic, saying he’d made a mistake by writing an article for Time magazine in 2009 that criticized its benefits.
“There are very legitimate medical applications,” Gupta stated on the CNN website last month. “In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works.”
His only caveat is that young, developing brains are likely more susceptible to harm from marijuana than adult brains.
“Some recent studies suggest that regular use in teenage years leads to a permanent decrease in IQ,” Gupta wrote. “Other research hints at a possible heightened risk of developing psychosis.
“Much in the same way I wouldn’t let my own children drink alcohol, I wouldn’t permit marijuana until they are adults,” he added. “If they are adamant about trying marijuana, I will urge them to wait until they’re in their mid-20s, when their brains are fully developed.”