Al-Jazeera to air UBC student doc

A documentary about the difficulty of getting morphine in the developing world made by journalism students from the University of British Columbia is to air Wednesday on Al Jazeera.

Freedom from Pain looks at how access to morphine is restricted by global drug policies

Student Sarah Buell prepares to interview an opium farmer in Rajasthan, India, for the documentary Freedom From Pain. (Evan Duggan/University of British Columbia)

A documentary made by journalism students from the University of British Columbia about the difficulty of getting morphine in the developing world is to air Wednesday on Al-Jazeera.

Nine students from the UBC international reporting program partnered with  Al-Jazeera English to produce the documentary Freedom from Pain.

The students are part of the same program - led by former 60 Minutes producer Peter W. Klein - which was nominated for two Emmys for the 2009 documentary Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground.

The graduate program also partnered with the Globe and Mail to produce a multi-media project Cheap Shrimp: Hidden Costs. Klein says such partnerships between students and media outlets are a growing trend.

Freedom from Pain took the group  to India, Ukraine and Uganda to investigate how countries around the world deal with patients suffering pain from cancer, injuries and other conditions involving chronic pain.

A cheap drug, but not available

Rebecca Cheung films as Jenna Owsianik speaks to palliative care doctors about a burn patient in the Mulago Hospital in Uganda. (Emily Jackson/University of British Columbia)

Morphine, which should be readily available, costs just pennies a dose, but is difficult to obtain in many countries, the students found.

"This story about global morphine shortages is one of those stories that both the media and the medical community have overlooked," Klein, the director of the UBC school of journalism, said in a press release.  "I'm proud we've been able to shed light on this hidden human rights crisis."

Bureaucratic hurdles and the chilling effect of the global war on drugs are delaying or preventing access to morphine, the students found. They also confronted United Nations representatives about the drug laws that curtail access to legitimate medical opiates.

Gun under the pillow

The documentary tells powerful individual stories of the effect of these policies — including a former KGB agent in the Ukraine, dying of prostate cancer, who sleeps with a gun under his pillow, in case the pain gets unbearable.

"For a victim of police torture, they will usually sign a confession and the torture stops," Diederik Lohman of Human Rights Watch, says in the film. "For someone who has cancer pain, that torturous experience continues for weeks and sometimes months on end."

Al-Jazeera's English network, now available in Canada, will show the doc and it will be streamed live on Al-Jazeera's People and Power website on July 20 at 6:30 ET.