A Story of Pain and Cannabis

In his battle with chronic pain, my friend finds himself at the mercy of prejudices about the drug that could help him most.

Aner Shalev
Aner Shalev
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Aner Shalev
Aner Shalev

I have a friend who for years has suffered from chronic pain. It’s nothing fatal; just something that lessens the will to live. My friend wants to live, but he has a modest wish: Not to be awakened by pain in the middle of the night and to function like everyone else during the day.

Things annoy him. It annoys him that sometimes when he calls the pain clinic for an appointment they give him an appointment for nine months later. It annoys him when nine months later they give him pills that don’t help. It annoys him that even when he spends a lot of money on a private doctor there is no improvement. It pains him that most doctors don’t even look at the place where it hurts but at the computer screen instead.

He has tried almost everything: Conventional and non-conventional medicine, physiotherapy, Feldenkrais, acupuncture, laser treatments. Nothing has helped. He pinned his hopes on hydrotherapy and found it really groovy to exercise on floats in a pool of warm water, but afterward the pain was worse.

The only thing that helps him a little is the strong painkillers he has to take every day, in increasing doses. But these have side effects. Some of them make him groggy, and their effectiveness decreases over time. Others are recommended for use over the course of weeks, not months and certainly not years – unless you want to add digestive, kidney or liver damage to the pain.

In all the years my friend has been getting treatment from pain specialists medical cannabis has not been offered to him, even though in many cases it is the most effective and healthiest treatment available for pain. It does not damage essential organs or suppress or increase the appetite, and innumerable patients of various ages report having their lives revived by medical cannabis.

In Israel, the number of users of medical cannabis has been increasing – today, there are about 10,000. But this is just a drop in the bucket, and the criteria were recently made stricter. Hundreds of thousands of people who are not on the brink of death but are suffering from horrible chronic pain are not receiving authorization from the Health Ministry for treatment with cannabis. Paradoxically, the healthiest substance is stigmatized.

What’s the problem? I asked my friend. Just score some marijuana and smoke it like everyone else. But he refuses to do this. The weed on the market is far more expensive and far less effective than medical cannabis, he tells me. And anyway, why are they making me break the law? Is it against the law to live without pain?

My friend has a new hope. The hope is called Yael German. She is someone who can lead revolutions, he tells me. Fact: For decades they have been adding fluoride to the drinking water in Israel despite the huge risks and now, as the new Health Minister, she has stopped this nonsense forthwith. She should also start a revolution in the area of cannabis. She should declare war on pain.

One day, my friend informed me that a pain doctor had prescribed cannabis for him. But it turns out this is not enough. He also needs a special authorization from the Health Ministry. If his application is approved, they will contact him – it isn’t clear when, the doctor told him. And if not, he will simply never hear from them. It’s Kafka at his finest.

Since then, my friend has been glued to his telephone. He even showers with it. He will not miss the phone call that will be the salvation from his torments. Months have already gone by. In my opinion, the call will never come. But I don’t have the heart to tell him.

A worker touches a cannabis plant at a growing facility for the Tikun Olam company near the northern city of Safed August 22, 2010Credit: Reuters

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