WEST HANTS, N.S. — Cynthia Howell says she is getting her life back on track, thanks to medical marijuana. But there’s a problem – the provincial pharmacare plan doesn’t cover the costs.
“I was prescribed medical cannabis two or three years ago to help with depression and pain,” Cynthia said in a sit-down interview. “It got me off big-pharma pills, which were killing me. I attempted suicide at one point in time.”
Cynthia says Nova Scotia Pharmacare, which offers payment relief to people who are low income or are accepting social assistance, covered the cost of the pills she was prescribed.
Over the years, she was prescribed a variety of medications to help with mental illness and pain, including Seroquel, Ativan, and Mirtazapine. None of them worked for her.
“Every time something creeped up, they just gave me another pill,” she said. “I’d get restless leg syndrome, well then take this pill, or I’d get headaches, take this pill.”
Fed up and tired of feeling like her medication was doing more harm than good, Cynthia switched to medical marijuana.
“I’ve been using cannabis for quite some time now, even before I was prescribed,” she said. “I’ll admit it, I was illegally healing myself. I noticed it helped.”
Howell said her psychiatrist noticed an improvement once she began consuming marijuana, and after doing some research, prescribed it.
“My life has been forever changed for the better,” Howell said.
“Before I started consuming cannabis, I literally wanted to die, there’s no other way to put it,” she said.
“I’d wake up disappointed that I woke up,” the Belmont resident said.
“Once I got on medical cannabis, I started processing my feelings more, instead of waking up wanting to die, I wanted to process my feelings and live,” she said. “Sometimes I still get the feeling that I want to run away, but not go away. That’s a huge step forward.”
Cynthia is currently living on a disability pension and has to purchase the medical marijuana out of pocket.
She primarily consumes the drug through pills, edibles and oils — averaging six grams per day.
The personal cost for Cynthia is approximately $1,500 - $2,000 a month. For Cynthia, it’s an impossible expense. Her family has helped pay for the treatment.
“I think they’d rather see me happy and healthy rather than worry about money,” she said.
“Although I’m very, very grateful for it, I also want to be able to stand on my own two feet,” she said. “If I can get pharmacare to help me and eventually get back to work I can start paying for it myself.”
Cynthia made her case at a special hearing at the Department of Community Services building in Windsor on Oct. 17, 2017.
The hearing took place in a small conference room, with an adjudicator overseeing the matter.
Representatives of the pharmacare system and social services were present to represent the province.
Cynthia’s father, David Howell, spoke on his daughter’s behalf during the hearing. Two of Cynthia’s close friends were also in attendance to offer support.
“The main thing for me to get across… (is) cannabis has come a long way socially-speaking in the last number of years, but it’s still not something everybody embraces. There’s still a stigma attached to it,” David said following the hearing. “There have been other cases in private industry and social services… to pay for a legitimate medicine.”
David said he argued that medical marijuana is a legitimate medicine and should be treated as such.
He referenced existing case law to highlight his point.
In one such case, a man tried to get his private insurance company to pay for a cannabis prescription, which the provincial human-rights board ruled in his favour.
One of the standout statements of that case, as David puts it, was “to deny somebody a medical treatment to improve their quality of life and comfort — and not to just because it’s cannabis — amounts to discrimination.”
In another case, a woman under similar social services programs as Cynthia brought her case forward, asking for the province to pay for her prescription.
“The court made the very sharp distinction, that the finding of a lower court, that medical marijuana is acceptable as treatment, stands,” David said. “It is acceptable under the eyes of the court as a special needs treatment.”
David said they haven’t taken Cynthia’s case to court yet, but are considering it as the next step, depending on the outcome of the hearing.
“We’re trying to get a point home; legalization is coming,” he said. “We’ve got medical doctors prescribing it, all the evidence shows that it’s a good thing for her, much better than a lot of these other paid for drugs ever could be.”
Marijuana is expected to be legalized for recreational use on July 1, 2018.
One of the main obstacles preventing medical marijuana from being covered by pharmacare is that the drug doesn’t have what’s known as a Drug Identification Number (DIN), an eight-digit number assigned by Health Canada to a drug product prior to going to market in Canada.
Most prescription pills have a DIN. Medical cannabis doesn’t have one yet, even though medical marijuana is regulated and sold via federally-authorized producers.
That means that Cynthia is unable to get her federal government sanctioned and produced medical marijuana covered by the provincial government, because it doesn’t have the necessary federal government labelling and registration.
“Marijuana has not been approved as a drug by Health Canada,” said Tracy Barron, the media relations advisor with the Department of Health and Wellness. “Medical marijuana does not follow federal regulatory standards for approved medications and will not be reviewed for pharmacare coverage.”
Although frustrated by the process, Cynthia says she remains optimistic that things will change and that pharmacare will eventually cover medical marijuana costs for her and others who need it.
“It’s a human right, and I’m sure I’ll eventually win, it’s just a matter of how many steps I’ll have to go through to get there,” Cynthia said. “This is a light at the end of the tunnel, that I haven’t seen for 20 years.”
Did You Know?
Loblaws, the parent company of Atlantic Superstore and Shopper’s Drug Mart, covers medical marijuana expenses for their employees.