When people hear that someone uses cannabis, they often give a nudge nudge wink wink and say, "Lucky you, getting high on weed, eh?"
I usually chuckle and reply that the official scientific name of the plant is "cannabis," and that it is medicine. For me, it's used to dull chronic nerve pain left after an invasive surgery to repair burst bowels and remove a 25-pound desmoid tumour.
It can also be used as an appetite stimulant, it quickly kills nausea and it relaxes anyone who needs to deal with frightening flashbacks of their time in hospital.
Yet the image of the lazy pot-smoker remains one of the most prevailing stigmas about medical cannabis users, and it was on full display recently during a CBC News interview with former NDP MP Peter Stoffer about cannabis use among veterans.
Once the NDP's critic for veterans affairs, Stoffer, who is now the public spokesperson for Nova Scotia-based Trauma Healing Centers, quipped that the 10 grams a day of cannabis allowed under Veterans Affairs Canada rules is "an awful lot of marijuana to give one person." Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr seems to agree, and announced this week that the limit will be scaled back to three grams.
In his interview, Stoffer added that veterans should be subject to a full lifestyle examination before being granted access to cannabis, suggesting that some might be using it simply to get high.
Novelty wears off
The novelty of being a cannabis consumer wears off quickly. For many medical cannabis users, the potential high is an unwanted side-effect.
So it was disappointing to read Stoffer repeat long-debunked myths about medical cannabis users looking for a buzz rather than relief in his thinly veiled comments about "lifestyle monitoring." That's simply not true.
And while the federal government does play a role in how veteran health care dollars are spent, it does not have the right to come between a patient and their doctor — nor should Veterans Affairs Canada be asking questions about a patient's lifestyle, financial status or eating habits, as suggested by Stoffer. They don't do it now, nor should they start. If they don't do it for other prescription medications, why should they do it for cannabis?
As Canada moves towards full legalization, it will be incumbent on the burgeoning cannabis industry to take steps to explain the various ways of consuming cannabis. Extractions, for instance, take much more plant matter to produce than other methods such as smoking or vaporizing.
Indeed, according to Maxim Zavet, CEO at Emblem Cannabis, it may be that veterans are relying increasingly on oils instead of smoking the dried flower — something that requires more plant material and may not contain psychoactive ingredients like THC. Stoffer acknowledged that fact in a follow-up call I had with him, but he held fast to his position, saying, "Everyone knows that 10 grams is a lot."
Like me, Michael Blais, of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, respects Stoffer and applauds the work he did in the House of Commons. But he also agreed that these long-standing stigmas about medical cannabis must fall, especially for Canada's veterans, who have already given so much for the sake of our nation. "There aren't many of us who have sustained a battle injury," he reminded me.
In 2017, Canada will become the first G7 nation to fully legalize cannabis use, both medically and recreationally. It would be a shame if Stoffer's cannabis myths — relics left over from the failed war on drugs — were to further disadvantage our veterans, right when they need our help the most.