Medical Marijuana is an Accessibility Issue: An Open Letter to Mayor Jim Watson

Dear Mayor Jim Watson,

My name is Anna “Ania” Bula, and I am a medical marijuana patient. I use mmj to treat the symptoms of severe Crohn’s disease.

I was diagnosed in 2008, after having lost nearly 60 pounds in the space of 2 months. Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive system. It causes inflammation of parts of the digestive tract which results in tears and ulcers. Among its symptoms are severe and frequent pain, exhaustion, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea. The inflammation can get so bad, that it causes blockages which can lead to bowel death that require surgery. At times it feels like my body is trying to digest itself. Imagine, being able to feel your own intestines, simply because they are so inflamed that the pain outlines them for you.

Since my diagnosis I have been hospitalized several times as a result. I’ve had countless medical procedures. The severity of my pain and frequency of my symptoms makes it difficult for me to work. On more than one occasion I have lost employment or positions at work because of interference from this disability.

I have had to miss classes, and my grades which were always very good, dropped because I was simply unable to maintain the energy required to go to class.

There is no cure for Crohn’s disease. I will have to live with this for the rest of my life and I am only 27 years old.

 

This disease, affects every area of my life: the decision whether or not to have children, my ability to support myself, the jobs I am able to do, what I eat, when I can go out, everything. My only hope is to go into remission, where I might be able to experience a few years of being symptomless. The way to go about this is with immune-suppressants. I’ve been taking them for years now, and still with no luck. While my symptoms have improved over time, I am still a long way from remission. I am on a double dose of the medication, an infusion I receive every six weeks.

Some days when I wake up, I am so nauseated that even the thought of food makes me throw up bile. Sometimes I have to spend the first 3 hours of my morning running back and forth to the bathroom. For the last month, I have known that every time I eat is going to result in sharp pains in my stomach. Think about that? Every meal, every snack, every taste test means I will spend the next while in pain. Or rather I should say, more pain that usual because the sad truth is, I am always in pain.

Imagine being afraid to brush your teeth, because the motion might make you throw up bile. Again. Bile burns as it comes up. The taste gets stuck in your throat, in your nose.

Medical Marijuana brought some normalcy to my life. It is the reason I am able to actually eat a meal without wanting to cry afterwards or having to lie perfectly still in the hopes that I would digest enough before I threw it back up that I wouldn’t have to go to the ER to get IV nutrients for dehydration and malnutrition. It wouldn’t be the first time.

I have lost count of the number of times that having access to pot has meant that I was able to maintain symptoms just enough that I could stay out of the hospital. In fact, since I started smoking there have been improvements in my scopes. If this keeps up I may have hope of going into remission.

The problem is that medical marijuana creates some of its own barriers. One of these is the ability to leave the house or socialize. Because of the stigma around the use of medical marijuana, and its questionably legal status, smoking in public is a hazard for patients. Even if we are very careful to only smoke in spaces where smoking is allowed, it is not uncommon for someone to comment or get hostile about the use. Visiting with friends can also be complicated since many are understandably uncomfortable with smoking indoors.

While the solution might be simply to not smoke for the duration of the outing or the visit, but depending on my symptoms, not having access to my medication can mean being in too much pain to be able to enjoy my time outside the house. If the pain is particularly bad, I might not even have a choice as to whether or not I can go out.

Disability often leads to isolation. Ottawa is not an accessible city, and so many events are off limits. The recent changes to the ParaTranspo rates have specifically made the service less affordable for people with disabilities by charging greater rates for those who are not also seniors. This despite the fact that people on ODSP, CPP, and other disability compensation problems are often in very tight financial straits. The OC Transpo system has a bad reputation among people with mobility disabilities, often putting people in walkers, wheelchairs, or with canes at risk of serious injury.

Many of the buildings in Ottawa do not have elevator access, and the sidewalks are too narrow and often too damaged downtown to make wheelchair passage safe. The snow banks at the sides of the road in winter are impassable for anyone with a mobility aid.

It can be difficult to find affordable housing in Ottawa that provides the right layout to operate a wheelchair and has elevator or ramp access.

The Taxi system in Ottawa is not much better, with taxi drivers often choosing not to pick up blind customers, especially those with service animals. I have even witnessed on one occasion a cab driver double charge a customer who was unable to see the meter to determine what the real cost of the ride was.

Even if all those things were not the case, disability would still cause isolation. Sometimes my Crohn’s makes my ankles swell painfully, making walking around painful and difficult. At other times, I am so exhausted from being sick, that I sleep 12 even 14 hours at a time, and then follow that up with naps.

The isolation caused by disability is well documented, and worse is directly related to the high levels of depression experience by those of us with chronic illnesses.

Earlier this year a smoke and vapor lounge for users of medical marijuana opened in Ottawa. Your objection to it is well documented, as are your efforts to get the lounge shut down. You specifically said that it is not something Ottawa needs. As someone who directly benefits from the existence of this lounge, I would like to explain to you why it is exactly what Ottawa needs.

The existence of this lounge is ultimately an accessibility issue. This lounge creates a public space where patients can socialize while still having access to their medication. It provides a space where people like me can get work done, or simply have a change of scenery, without having to face the choice of whether to put up with shaming and potential violence or excruciating pain/other symptoms.

The ability to experience public spaces can be a great step towards improving quality of life for patients. It also provides an employment opportunity for people who need to medicate throughout the day. Further, the vapor lounge provides space for patients to create community. As a meeting point for people with similar problems, it provides the opportunity for patients to organize support systems and build networks to improve their ability to survive and even thrive in our city.

I understand the concern regarding having a unified location where people partake of what is socially considered a drug, but what needs to be understood is that despite its reputation mmj is in fact a medicine. It provides pain relief, can act as an anti-emitic and reduce nausea, increase appetite, and reduce depression. High CBD strains can provide help with movement disorders such as seizures, Parkinson’s, and so forth.

Your opposition to this vapor lounge, is misguided and harms patients. I don’t know what you think goes on in those places but I thought it might be helpful to hear from someone who actually went there.

When I arrived, my ID was checked to make sure that I was of legal age. I was told that there were absolutely no tobacco products allowed, and I was provided with a list of regulations. Among these regulations it was clearly stated that the lounge was meant for legal patients only. It is made clear that no alcohol is allowed to be consumed, that there is to be no drug dealing or any illegal activity of any kind.

When I arrived, there were not a lot of people there. After the counter that separated the front entrance from the lounge itself, there was a woman who wasn’t smoking or vaping, just filling out crossword puzzles. She told me she liked the atmosphere. Further in were two gentlemen discussing the vaporizer and the best way to operate it without coughing. They welcomed me nicely, asked me if I needed any help using the vape. We ended up talking about the benefits of different strains for different types of pain, and compared notes so that the next time we made our purchase from our licensed producer, we would have extra information to make our decisions. We bonded over the pain of pancreatitis, a condition I have suffered from and needed surgery for myself.

In the back of the lounge, there is an assortment of tables and comfortable couches. In the far corner a quartet of disabled young people played a game of cards and sharing stories. Even though they were medicating, they were respectful in their noise. They didn’t yell obnoxiously, but instead laughed over snacks and pop. It made me think that maybe I could come back here with friends sometime, to play board games.

Later in the night, after the students went home, another person went off to play video games on the available system. In a quieter corner, one man read articles on his phone. I observed all this while working on my writing. The change of scenery helped me get inspired and break through the writer’s block that had been haunting me for some time.

I kept thinking back to those students, amused at how different the scene could have been if this was a bar. How many times do drunk young people get up to vandalism, or violence even. This group however was respectful, and just very cheerful. Even if they managed to get very stoned, the likelihood is that the result would have been them heading home to bed earlier. Or if they were smoking something high energy, that focus is very helpful in getting work done.

As the clock ticked by, some of the people started getting hungry and decided to order pizza. Even though I wasn’t known there, I was still offered a slice and invited to join them.

The atmosphere was very pleasant. I could see it rapidly becoming a place I could come when I felt the need to be around people. I could see myself getting to know people, and maybe having a place where I could meet with friends, without having to worry about having the cops called on me. After only one visit, I could already see an improvement in my quality of life.

So learning that you used your power to have the place shut down, when the owners have been working very hard to comply with every request that was made of them, gives me cause for concern. I am asking you, as my Mayor and representative, to put aside your own prejudices in favour of creating a more accessible Ottawa. I am asking you to speak to patients and get a better understanding of the hardships faced by us. I am asking you to better educate yourself on the actual medical benefits of medical marijuana.

As a tax paying citizen of Ottawa, I am asking you to not ignore the economic benefits of opening Ottawa up to such businesses. Not only are they good for patients and create a less shaming and oppressive environment, but cities that have embraced so called weed money, have seen a massive economic upswing.

I have recently had the fortune of visiting Colorado, specifically the Denver area, where they have gone beyond simply accepting Medical Marijuana, but have also legalized the use and sale of recreational marijuana. The actual sale is heavily regulated, with strict rules regarding how much is allowed to be purchased and sold in various forms, with a daily maximum on edibles, flower, and other marijuana products. Every trip to the dispensary follows a strict procedure where your ID is presented and verified, and then you are helped directly by someone. At no point does a customer have the ability to interact with the product without being observed.

The benefit to medical users has been great by reducing the need to smoke for medicine by providing options such as medicated patches. But the benefit to the city has been even greater. The specific areas where the shops have set up were previously low income areas with high crime rates. Since then however, the influx of new business has created a large influx of money. New real estate developments are being set up, buildings are renovated and infrastructure improved. The employment rate has increased. Related businesses such as cafes, restaurants, smoke lounges, have also flourished.

The money coming in from the taxes sale of marijuana has increased the public school budget several fold. The city has such a high surplus at this time that they are in a position to have to return some of the money simply because they have too much.

With the struggling economy in Canada, and the way in which it has impacted Ottawa as well with the layoffs at the federal level, the closing of several big companies Ottawa branches, and even the closing of large chain stores, an influx of new money is desperately needed. The Mayor who embraces the movement towards a more accepting environment when also establish strict rules regarding use, will find his efforts highly rewarded.

A Mayor who opposes it however, reveals himself to be more concerned with his uneducated prejudices than with the well-being of his electorate. Your position is one of service to the people, and as one of those people I am holding you accountable to people who often have their welfare overlooked.

Please do not disappoint us.

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3 comments

    1. I sent this letter directly to his email and tweeted it at his office as well. If I get a response I will let people know.

      The truth is that as a patient I am made to feel like a criminal every time I medicate. I’ve noticed that in these discussions, very rarely are patients asked to comment. Or asked like we are civilians and not experts in our own right.

      Like

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