WINDSOR STAR: Border a no-go zone for Canada’s medical pot patients

Doug Schmidt  •  Windsor Star
Oct 17, 2016

Dangling uselessly at her side, Jan Rieveley’s right arm has become a “paper weight.”

A bad fall in a dark cave in Ohio four years ago tore nerves previously made weaker from cancer radiation treatment.

“It’s pain 24/7,” says the 61-year-old owner of a small Riverside business.

Rieveley said her previous opiate “cocktail” of Percocets and other pain medications permitted her to work about two hours a week.

Rieveley hated what those opioids were doing to her. So, six months ago, her doctor prescribed pot, and it worked wonderfully. Her life on pot has improved to the point she’s working a couple of days a week.

“I like control in my life,” Rieveley said of her decision to avoid the powerful opiates of the pharmaceutical companies.

But now there’s another problem. She can’t visit family in the United States.

Canadian patients making the switch from highly addictive opioids to medical marijuana to cope with chronic pain and other ailments have been warned it’s against the law to take that relief across the border.

She and her husband “love travelling in Michigan,” and they have family in Florida. “As long as you have a legal prescription, I don’t see how anyone should not be able to travel,” said Rieveley.

She recently went on a seven-hour Michigan trip but ended up “feeling pretty miserable.” The effects of her cannabis-derived medication usually last four to five hours, but Rieveley said she would never risk getting a permanent ban on visiting the U.S. by sneaking it in.

A growing number of North American communities, states and provinces are declaring public health emergencies as addiction and misuse rates soar for prescription painkiller opioids — everything from OxyContin pills to fentanyl patches.

You’ll never see Rieveley stoned or high because the medical marijuana she uses to get through the day has next to no tetrohydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in pot. Hers is high in cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive cannabis compound effective in chronic pain management.

“If someone wanted to get stoned, they’re not going to get stoned on mine,” said the mother of two adult children. “There’s nothing euphoric — for me, cannabis shuts down the pain centre (in the brain).”

The problem for pot-prescribed patients who would like to travel to the U.S. is that, “in the eyes of the law, cannabis is cannabis, it’s all the same,” said Dr. Christopher Blue, a Windsor family physician who specializes in pain management.

“I have patients who say they’re going to Florida for three or four months, and I say, ‘Great … but leave your cannabis at home,’” he said. Blue’s patients must sign consent forms when prescribed marijuana, including agreeing not to try and sneak it across the border.

“Unfortunately, you’re stuck,” said Blue, whose medical marijuana patients — Rieveley is not one — are prescribed pot to combat everything from pain, depression and insomnia to anxiety and the side-effects of cancer chemotherapy.

Vic Neufeld, president and CEO of Leamington-based Aphria, a licensed producer of medical marijuana, said it’s one thing to be caught at the border without properly declared goods but pot is on a whole different level of serious crime.

The Trudeau Liberals are now studying the eventual legalization of recreational pot, but the United States lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, in the same category as heroin. A Canadian caught with pot at the border might find it difficult or impossible to ever be allowed back into America again.

“That’s not going to change — we see no movement towards tolerance at the (American) federal level whatsoever,” said Neufeld.

While some American officials are reluctant to speak on the issue before seeing details of what Ottawa might propose, it appears unlikely there will be any softening soon at the border for pot, even if it’s for medical purposes and even if it’s the kind that won’t ever get the user stoned.

“It would still be illegal importation into the U.S. — there’s no likelihood our federal law … will change in the near-term,” said Robert Bonner, a former administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who is also a former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Bonner, currently senior principal of Sentinel Strategy & Policy Consulting, spoke to the Star at last month’s U.S./Canada Border Conference in Detroit.

Conference delegates, including the current U.S. DEA administrator and top security officials, heard it was “utter nonsense” to suggest marijuana users were being targeted by the DEA. But in the latest DEA/FBI war-on-drugs effort — a powerful cautionary video production on opiate abuse called Chasing the Dragon — marijuana is described by all the addicts portrayed as their gateway drug to the current fentanyl epidemic sweeping North America.

Luc Portelance, a former president of the Canada Border Services Agency, told the Star that marijuana legalization on this side of the border is “not a show stopper,” and that it could be treated by U.S. border agents as guns are now handled at the Canadian border.

“It’s just going to get worse with recreational — there’s going to be no leniency at all,” said Aphria’s Neufeld.

Windsor’s Jon Liedtke was on the Transit Windsor tunnel bus with a friend when U.S. customs officers lined up all the passengers on the Detroit side and brought in a sniffer dog. The dog stopped at Liedtke and his friend.

“I’ve got a dog too,” the friend said helpfully. “That’s not a good response right now,” the border agent replied, according to Liedtke, who explained that he was registered to use medical marijuana.

“He said, ‘Did you bring any with you?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not an idiot,’ and he laughed and let us go,” said Liedtke, adding there should be a different set of rules for those prescribed marijuana for medical use.

“We’re going to see more (border) delays,” predicts Liedtke, the owner of Higher Limits, a cannabis lounge. But he also believes that when, inevitably, a growing number of Canadians start getting turned around at the border, the politicians will get involved and a binational solution will be found.

But he thinks “we’re 10 years out from carrying (pot) across the border.”

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Marijuana: Border a no-go zone for Canada’s medical pot patients | Windsor Star


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