Sitting back on a comfy couch in her Burlington residence, Alison Myrden looks ready for battle. Two long braids are tucked under her black cargo cap, while sunshine hits her sparkling nose stud and glints off of her fierce amber eyes.
She's passionate, ready to fight for her fellow multiple sclerosis sufferers.
A few weeks ago, though, Ms. Myrden's lustre was lessened after she was denied a summer student - one of five hired to give companionship to MS sufferers - by the Burlington chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada. The reason they gave her? The university students could be harmed by the marijuana she continually uses to control the savage pain in her face and help her walk.
"I don't get depressed, but this one really hit me hard," she says, her voice gruff.
Ms. Myrden, 43, has been fighting to help medical cannabis gain credibility for nearly 10 years, making headlines along the way. She was also once involved in law enforcement, working with young offenders who were often nailed for drug use.
"Then I'd go home and smoke [marijuana] It was completely hypocritical," she says. She was diagnosed in 1992 at the age of 28, but continued in law enforcement until 1995.
After quitting her job when the disease caused her to lose feeling below her knees, she started using pharmaceuticals more heavily. Nowadays, without marijuana, she needs to take 32 pills and 2,000 milligrams of morphine a day to manage her pain, which makes her sleepy and unable to communicate easily. But with 20 to 28 grams of marijuana a day (one of the heaviest allowances in the country), she can cut her pill use by two-thirds, yet still remain wakeful and alert.
Ms. Myrden is hardly alone. Canada has one of the highest rates of MS in the world. Increasingly, sufferers of the disease are turning to cannabis use to alleviate their pain, since medical heroin or opium can cause nausea and other unpleasant side effects.
Cannabis use has been regulated by the government since 2001 under the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations. The program, which has nearly 2,000 patients, gives licences allowing those approved to carry certain amounts of marijuana, while often also giving growing privileges to a family member. With approval, marijuana can be smoked, eaten, made into tea or ointment, vaporized, or sprayed into the mouth.
Nonetheless, doctors, aid groups and lawyers all say that this country is far from where it needs to be on acceptance of marijuana as a drug therapy.
"Everyone sort of rolls their eyes and winks at you, but I think people have to start treating it as a serious drug that helps people," says Dr. Allan Gordon, director of the Wasser Pain Management Centre at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
Ms. Myrden's lawyer, Alan Young, a York University law professor who's led the charge on medical marijuana approval, said he's surprised that the MS Society reacted this way, because it "has been quite supportive of marijuana research."
But Robyn Halliwell, the interim director of the Burlington MS Society who delivered Ms. Myrden the news, said she's trying to find balance between the rights of her staff and the needs of a client. "While we want to respect the rights of Alison to seek medical marijuana treatment, I believe there are five other people who have rights and should expect to work in a safe environment," she says.
The program is meant to increase social activity for MS sufferers. Ms. Halliwell considers her request analogous to asking a person to stop smoking cigarettes in front of a volunteer, as per the smoke-free work-environment regulations. And while she said she's not aware of any studies the MS Society of Canada has been doing on medical marijuana and has not read any studies on the therapy, she stressed the point that neither the summer students nor she are medically trained or allowed to handle it.
"Whether or not that is her pain reliever, the fact is, we're still exposing our students to something where they could become high," said Ms. Halliwell, who discussed the issue with a pharmacist and the national MS Society before making her decision.
Ms. Myrden now relies on her mother, Joyce, to help her out with making baked goods that contain the marijuana, a format that helps ease her nausea, allowing her to get a solid night's rest.
Her lawyer, Mr. Young, says "mixed messages" in the legislation cause confusion about marijuana use. "If Alison were able to secure a tablet that had the same products in it, they wouldn't blink," he says. Since the Conservative government has moved away from decriminalization, they are unlikely to support a strong medical marijuana program, Mr. Young points out.
As well, as part of budget cuts last September, the government decided not to renew the medical marijuana research program, citing savings of $4-million over the next two years.
Ms. Myrden is hopeful the government will one day catch up with the apparent beliefs of the rest of Canada, which was recently found by the United Nations to have the highest usage rate of marijuana in the industrialized world.
Finally, she said, she wishes everyone could just get along and find a solution, because she doesn't want to see this happen to anyone else.
"I don't want to fight the [MS Society of Burlington] I don't have the energy to," she says wearily.
"[But]people like me are going to be coming for a long time in this country and they have to get used to us, because we have rights too."