“I hate the thought that somebody else could be suffering and not have to.”
Karen Klassen has been emerging of late from her condo unit, socializing with her neighbours over coffee and when they ask what’s brought her out more, she’s been reluctant to answer.
For at least 25 years, Klassen has endured chronic pain and she believes medicinal marijuana is what has been helping her.
It began with fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis, but Klassen later suffered a broken back. The last diagnosis, which she says is the most significant, is a failed back surgery, spinal stenosis and ankylosing spondylitis.
She was put on prescription opioids, anti-depressants and gabepentin — which is sometimes used to treat nerve pain. More than a year ago, she took herself off pharmaceuticals and tried medicinal cannabis.
On the day she spoke to the StarPhoenix, Klassen travelled to the newsroom by bus. It was the second time she rode the bus in 20 years.
“And I couldn’t sit before,” she said, speaking with a wavering voice through tears.”So I think that this medication — I’m more functional than I’m not, because I’m not doing my housework and I’m not cooking. But I’m not in pain and I’m not howling.”
A few years ago, she heard about cannabis being used to treat pain, but that option wasn’t available here. She asked her doctor about it, and was told, “No.” Klassen didn’t think about it again.
But when a cannabis club opened in Saskatoon, she thought about trying it. At that point, she thought it would help her sleep for longer than an hour at a time.
“I went down there and they gave me a couple cookies and I ate those cookies, and I slept for the first time since, in 1978, I slept for five hours. And I couldn’t believe it, so I thought there’s got to be something to this.”
Klassen went to her doctor at the time and asked if she could try medicinal marijuana. She said her doctor “flipped out” and told her absolutely not and that she couldn’t be a patient of hers if she wanted to try something like that. She started to look for a new doctor and found her current doctor, who was willing to write her a prescription for medicinal marijuana.
Dr. Robert LaPrairie, a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, says Canadian researchers are making progress in understanding how medicinal marijuana could be used to treat pain.
“We’re deep in the middle,” he says. He is studying the compounds found in cannabis and their effects on the human body from a pharmacological perspective. Researchers so far understand that it’s the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that’s responsible for creating a high.
“There’s at least 120 other compounds in the plant whose function we don’t fully understand. So, just from a basic science level, there’s a lot of research that is going on and needs to continue happening to understand what this plant is doing when it’s consumed in the body, just like we would study any other drug,” LaPrairie says.
But he’s also looking at lab-created cannabinoids, which LaPrairie says aren’t intoxicating, but would have the beneficial effects associated with cannabinoids, such as pain control and inflammatory responses.
He says from the research field in general, it looks like there is potential for certain uses of medicinal marijuana to treat pain. But because what people are taking from person to person and from day to day may differ, that’s making it near impossible to reach a definite conclusion about what does and does not work.
Staff at Best Buds, a cannabis dispensary in Saskatoon, regularly field questions about how medicinal marijuana could be used to treat pain, says Mike Francis, a partner in the business.
He says medicinal cannabis consists of strains high in the cannabinoid CBD.
“Somebody who had pain would probably be looking for some cannabis that has CBD in there, while a recreational user wouldn’t be looking for anything like CBD — they’d be looking for something with the most THC in it that would kind of give them the most impairment,” Francis says.
Right now, there are about 200,000 medicinal users legally drawing on the supply, he says, and the reason why shops such as Best Buds exist is that there is a lack of access to medicinal marijuana right now.
After July 1, when the federal government plans to legalize marijuana for recreational use, supply may improve with recreational shops opening.
“I think overall, it’s going to be a positive because I think people are going to be able to get their medicine. And let’s face it, there are people out there that probably want to try it, but they’re too scared to talk to their doctor, or whatever the case may be. In a recreational environment, they might find more comfort in getting it,” he says.
Klassen now gets cannabis via mail order once a month from a dispensary. In December, it cost $300 to get it from a licensed government producer. She uses CBD and says she “budgets” it and goes without it except for on nights when she has a lot of spasms or when something “just has to be done.” Her prescription allows her to grow three of her own plants, which would save her money.
But there is still the stigma to deal with.
Since she started using medicinal marijuana, Klassen has been attending coffee meetings with other residents of her condo. But they aren’t receptive to cannabis use, even for medicinal reasons.
She is hoping to find a group that meets in person to discuss chronic pain and where she can share her experiences with others.
“I hate the thought that somebody else could be suffering and not have to. Because if I had had this earlier, if I could have done this method earlier, I probably, wouldn’t have broken my back the second time, and I would have had a life because I would have had contact with people and I would have been able to make appointments and go out.”