The high cost of killing pain

October 07, 2005

Dalson Chen, Windsor Star

Ron Lawrence had good reason to apply for the maximum daily dosage of medical marijuana available from Health Canada.

Twenty-one years after a house fire left him with burns on more than 90 per cent of his body, the scar tissue that covers his legs and torso still causes him pain.

"Basically, ever since I was out of the hospital, I've had wounds," said Lawrence, 37. "I'm constantly uncomfortable. It's hard to explain."

Although Lawrence has endured more skin graft operations than he can count, his flesh continues to ulcerate and rupture, particularly on his shins and ankles.

This, combined with arthritis and other joint problems, led to Lawrence's authorization for medical marijuana use in February.

Eight months and 1,200 grams of marijuana later, Lawrence now finds himself $6,400 in debt to Health Canada and his supply of the drug cut off until payment.

"I wouldn't be able to pay $800 a month even if I were working at Chrysler," said Lawrence, whose only income is from the Ontario Disability Support Program. "I don't know what I'm going to do."

Lawrence said an invoice for $750 plus $52.50 in tax arrived with each monthly 150-gram shipment of the federal government's dried marijuana, but he believed the cost was covered by the ODSP.

Due to his condition, Lawrence has been on disability since he was 18, and the program pays for other pain-relief medications he requires.

But Valerie Lasher, manager of the country's Marihuana Medical Access Division, said it isn't within Health Canada's mandate to determine what programs will cover the cost of the drugs.

"It's always been clear that there is a cost to the Health Canada product," she said.

"No one should have been unaware that there was a cost."

Lasher said cutting off shipments is the government's last resort when patients are in arrears, but individuals who don't contact her division and develop repayment schedules can't receive further shipments.

"It's not fair to all the patients who are paying for the product," she said, adding that only a very small number of the 943 Canadians receiving medical marijuana are in arrears to Health Canada.

Vancouver Island resident Eric Nash, who is licensed to grow medical marijuana and runs an informational website called, said he's heard numerous stories from people who simply can't afford the price of the government product.

"Many of these people are on disability. It puts patients in a very tough financial situation," he said. "It's really unfortunate the program is set up like this."

But Lasher pointed out that the government's price is half of what the drug would cost on the street.

Lasher said Lawrence still has the options of either applying for a licence to grow medical marijuana himself or applying for someone to grow the product for him.

Lawrence said he's looking into both ideas, and he's in the midst of requesting that the ODSP cover what he owes Health Canada.

But the steep price isn't Lawrence's only complaint about government marijuana.

"Look at it. It's so dry," he said as he sifted through the last of what he'd received, which he estimates will last him another three weeks. "It tastes like cardboard."

Lawrence said he found the Health Canada product too weak to have any effect when he mixed it with food, leaving hand-rolled marijuana cigarettes his only option.

"I could get better grass than this on the street," he added.

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