01/17/2012 05:53 EST | Updated 03/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Confessions of a Medical Marijuana User: Part One

I am sitting in a waiting room in an old converted house in a downtown residential neighbourhood. The room is bright and sunny, with potted houseplants, a water cooler and a standing fan in the corner. A few men and women, from their early 20s to their late 50s, also wait quietly. There's a friendly receptionist and office staffers buzz around her. It could be anywhere and we could be waiting for anything...except for the double-locked metal doors at the entrance and the pungent aroma of marijuana in the air. I am in a compassion centre, which doles out medical marijuana. And I'm thinking to myself, "How did I get here?"

I'm a 39-year-old law-abiding citizen. I work in banking. I don't speed, I've never gotten a parking ticket and jaywalking makes me uncomfortable. While I make no judgment of people who use marijuana recreationally, I have never been one of them -- my drug of choice has always been a nice glass of wine. So how did I get here?

Well, I'm also a 39-year-old woman who was diagnosed with a debilitating chronic pain condition three years ago -- fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. It started as a mild sluggishness, which I assumed was my anemia -- a condition I'd had for years --acting up again. But within six months, I was taking vacation days to sleep. Six months after that, I was off work completely. I had always been an incredibly active person, but suddenly getting to the bathroom was a struggle.

I couldn't sleep because of the pain, I couldn't work, I couldn't even sit for more than a few minutes without having to move. Living alone, basic household chores were too much for me -- laundry, cooking, cleaning. I had to give my dog away. I broke up with my boyfriend and let go of any semblance of a social life. My daily routine, as I knew it, was over. Money was also becoming an issue.

When I first got sick, I had complete faith in Western medicine and our healthcare system. I thought I would go to my doctor, who would immediately diagnose me, write me a prescription for some pill that would work quickly, and I'd be back to my normal life in no time at all.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. It took a year and a half to even have my mystery illness diagnosed. My doctors thought it could be everything from diabetes to MS to a brain tumor. I saw more specialists than I ever knew existed: neurologists, cardiologists, ENTs and, finally, a rheumatologist, who was the one to identify my condition. But even with a diagnosis, there was still no clear treatment plan and nothing close to a cure. I did get a lot of pills prescribed -- mostly hardcore, highly addictive narcotics -- which turned me into a drooling lump on the couch, with night terrors and hallucinations. And still the pain didn't go away.

After allopathic medicine failed me, I turned to alternative medicine. I'm pretty straight-laced, as I mentioned, but by that time if someone had told me that standing on my head and clucking like a chicken could help, I would have done it.

I had nothing left to lose. I started seeing a naturopath to deal with the immediate symptoms, and a homeopath who used a regression timeline to eliminate underlying causes of my CFS and fibromyalgia. My shiatsu therapist, who deals with pain management, has, in all earnestness, saved my life. To my great surprise, I started to feel better. I finally had some hope that there was a light at the end of this very dark tunnel. But these alternative methods work slowly and, in the meantime, I was still looking for some relief. Then a friend of mine mentioned marijuana.

I had heard about Canada's program for legal marijuana, if used for medicinal purposes. I had already been unconsciously self-prescribing a bottle of wine each night for over a year, to get some semblance of sleep. This wouldn't be that different, I thought. And weed had to be less insidious than oxycodone, which I was getting from the pharmacy.

I did some research and found that marijuana has definite medical benefits. From Alzheimer's to asthma, marijuana has been proven to not only relieve some symptoms, but to also prevent others. It can keep cancer from spreading, reduces muscle spasms for people with spinal-cord injuries, and can work as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory for people with arthritis. For those with my condition, it has been shown to reduce nausea and chronic pain and to improve sleep. It sounded like the magic pill I was looking for.

I found a local clinic, the Toronto Compassion Centre, a non-profit founded in 1997. Their website was straightforward and very helpful. "We provide information relating to the therapeutic use of cannabis and facilitate access to a consistent, safe, and dependable source of medical cannabis products for people suffering from ailments for which cannabis has been shown to be effective," it read.

You needed to meet their membership requirements and the first step was getting a referral from a doctor. I downloaded the application (an eight-page form) and took it to my GP for her signature.

For part two of this three-part series, click here. This article previously appeared in the Grid.

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