Elderly using marijuana to ease their pain

June 20, 2004

Kim Knight, Stuff - New Zealand

It wasn't a recipe you'd find in the Edmonds Cookery Book.

Marion Chitty's golden syrup biscuits packed a special punch. Flour, ginger, baking soda – and cannabis butter.

For two years, the 67-year-old from New Plymouth ate half a hash cookie a night. Just enough, she says, to help her sleep.

Her plants grew from seed in a back paddock. Tall, green and spiky. Harvested carefully and frozen for later use.

Kind of like spinach?

'Very big bags of spinach,' she confirms. 'Big shopping bags of spinach.'

When the police raided Chitty's home, they found six kilograms of cannabis and a quantity of biscuits.

'It was never addictive for me. I didn't go round half stoned all day. It was no different to half a glass of brandy really, but it was cheaper and more effective.

'I'd sleep till 6.30am and jump out of bed like a sprightly old chicken and I never, ever had a hangover or anything with it.'

Last month, Chitty and partner Ron Stratford pleaded guilty to charges of possession and cultivation. They were fined a combined $2500. Neither had been to court before.

'Never, never in my life,' says Chitty. 'And I was just petrified.'

But she's not alone. Last year, 19 people aged 60 or older were convicted on cannabis-related charges – 14 for dealing and five for possession and use. Ministry of Justice figures show a consistent pattern of drug prosecutions against the elderly: 10 each in 2001 and 2002, 17 in 2000 and 21 in 1999.

Chitty argues her marijuana use was medicinal, not recreational. New Zealand laws don't differentiate. A health select committee inquiry has recommended the government consider ways of legalising the medicinal use of the drug. It is awaiting United Kingdom approval for an under-the-tongue cannabis spray. GW Pharmaceuticals had hoped to have cleared regulatory hurdles by April but in a recent statement said: 'It is now thought that the regulatory process will continue past the end of the second quarter.'

So, sick New Zealanders continue to take cannabis illegally.

In March, Waimate police interrupted Dawn Willis as she pulled cannabis loaves, intended for her ill husband, from her oven. Eighty plants were found in her suburban back garden, but were deemed to be growing too wildly to indicate a supply operation.

In Auckland, a man who will give his name only asKarl alleges he's making marijuana milk for about 70 senior citizens from around the North Island. He says they bring him cannabis; he cleans it, steams it into cow's milk, and gives them take-home packs of frozen green ice blocks. His oldest client is 88.

'I had his 60-year-old son come to Auckland and abuse me: 'What are you doing to my dad? I couldn't find dad for three hours, you know what, he was on his horse, he hasn't ridden his horse for 15 years, he was down the back of the farm trying to get some eels.''

In the past two years, 10 people have applied to the Minister of Health for permission to use cannabis for medicinal purposes. All were declined.

GreenCross, an organisation campaigning for legal medicinal use of the drug, has 30 members with letters from their doctors, saying cannabis could benefit their patients. Three of its clients are over 60.

That's the tip of the iceberg, say advocacy groups. They know old people who frequent tinnie houses to access the illegal drug they say assists with everything from epilepsy, muscle spasms, stress, insomnia, headaches, occupational overuse syndrome pain, anxiety, anorexia, cancer, depression, alcohol withdrawal, violent temper control and HIV and Aids-related symptoms.

Chitty just wanted a good night's sleep. The long-term insomniac tried hypnotism and anti-depressants before someone suggested cannabis. At 65, she sat down at her computer and got basic processing instructions from the internet.

'I'm always baking. It was easy for me to sort it out. I always preserve and make jam and freeze fruit and stuff like that.'

She's considering going back to sleeping pills but says she'd rather eat a cannabis cookie. 'It just makes me sad to think it's been taken away and I've ended up with a huge fine and a criminal record.'

Does she worry what message she's sending her 11 grandchildren?

'I just said that it's an illegal drug and it's against the law to smoke it, but it's around . . . no doubt they will be offered it at parties when they get older, but I grew it to make biscuits for health reasons.'

It's an old-fashioned cure. Over-the-counter remedies containing cannabis were sold in New Zealand until the early 1960s, says David Hadorn, Kaikoura-based director of the Drug Policy Forum Trust.

He's just hosted a panel of international experts on the medicinal use of cannabis and is now working on submissions to government 'in terms of what we think is a good way forward for New Zealand in the medicinal cannabis arena and what sort of programme could be set up and to what extent would it need to be based on law changes and to what extent it could be based on a tolerance attitude from police'.

Hadorn says in a country where baby-boomers are getting older, cannabis is a logical way to keep health care costs down.

'It's going to be impossible to pay for all of the expensive pharmaceutical drugs that people are going to be demanding or physicians are going to be prescribing for all of their pains and illnesses. Cannabis and other herbal treatments are a big part of what the solution has to be. We have to cut down on the unit price of treating a pain or an illness.'

Doctors are sceptics, he says. 'They don't know what the deal is, they've never been taught and they've heard all this stuff from government and anti-drug types that just makes it seem like the demon weed. It's just a short memory, because it hasn't been that long since it was used as medicine.'

Hadorn, who describes himself as an American-trained emergency physician, taught his 78-year-old mother, her body wasted with cancer, how to use a bong. His dad would hold the lighter and she would hold her thumb over a little hole in the back of the pipe. An hour after her first inhalation, she ate steak.

His mother died a few months later, but Hadorn says 'had she not had that medicine' she would have been dead within the week.

On the Kapiti Coast, 80-year-old Una Cargill sometimes wishes she was dead. She severely injured her back while gardening, and is devastated New Zealand doesn't have a legalised medicinal cannabis programme.

'When you're in severe chronic pain and you cry with it and you have sleep deprivation, you're pretty desperate.'

She says if a doctor told her cannabis would help rather than harm her, 'yes, I'd break the law. And I've never broken the law in my life.'

The import, cultivation, possession and sale of any cannabis plants, seeds or products are prohibited by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. That makes Karl, the man who steams marijuana into milk, nervous about talking to the media.

He calls his mixture rongoa, Maori for medicine, and administers it in one or two teaspoonful lots. Up to 20 ounces of cannabis produce about five litres of milk. He calls his clients his extended family and charges a koha – a donation – for his service. Karl acknowledges he has no medical training.

'I'm the messenger answering their call. If they take too much they'll get high and go to sleep or have a big feed and that'll be the end of that . . . I don't take on new family willy-nilly.'

GreenCross spokesman Greg Soar says it's daunting for old people to have to consider buying cannabis 'on the black market'.

'All of our members are basically law-abiding citizens except they have a very severe health condition, their doctors are telling them what would be helpful, the government is not making that available to them. Should they then be expected to die or suffer because of inaction?

'Nobody seems to care about the 60-year-old lady who just wants to have some peace or stillness before she passes away or maybe the 70-year-old who could have a course of chemo and maybe survive, whereas they might choose not to if the nausea was too much for them. Those are the real issues.'


 



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