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Breaking the Stigma: Using Marijuana for more than a high

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Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is classified as an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system which consists of the brain and spinal cord. The disease attacks the protective covering of the nerves, causing inflammation and often damaging the tissue that is necessary for the transmission of nerve impulses through nerve fibers.
MS is unpredictable and can cause symptoms such as extreme fatigue, lack of coordination, weakness, tingling, impaired sensation, vision problems, bladder problems, cognitive impairment and mood changes. Its effects can be physically, emotionally and financially draining with no known cure.
Canada has the highest rate of MS in the world, with an estimated 1 in 340 Canadians living with the disease. Swan Valley resident Amy Kooistra-Redlick is one of those statistics. It was on Jan. 13, 2014 that the then 33-year-old mother of two’s life would change forever.
“One morning I woke up and I had absolutely no feeling from my waist down on the right side,” said Kooistra-Redlick.
“There was still feeling if I pushed really hard – I could feel pressure – but I had no sensation. It felt as if it was non-stop asleep right to the end of the toe. It’s the oddest feeling – it’s there but it’s not there – like a cement block that you are dragging around with you. I was still able to walk and function but I really had to watch as my foot would drag behind, making me stumble or trip.”
Thinking she just had a pinched nerve, Kooistra-Redlick visited the chiropractor who couldn’t find any issues. After a couple days with no changes, she decided to seek medical attention from her doctor.
“I explained everything and they did a whole bunch of tests – blood work, X-rays and everything like that – concluding that it might just be a flared up nerve,” Kooistra-Redlick said.
“This went on for quite a few months and it wasn’t going away. We had tried some different treatments and medications and now I wanted an MRI. Something wasn’t right.
“I asked (the doctor) if they thought it could be MS,” she continued. “The response was that I didn’t want that but that it wouldn’t be known without an MRI.”
After waiting to receive the MRI, Kooistra-Redlick made the trip to Brandon for the test.
“We got the report back and it showed that I had lesions on my spine,” she said. “I was set up at the MS clinic in Winnipeg. They were hesitant to call it MS right away. They ordered up another MRI with the machines they are familiar with and again the lesions showed.”
By April 2014, Kooistra-Redlick was officially diagnosed – she did in fact have MS.
“They started me on different medications,” she said. “I had numbness for six months in that leg before it started to go away. But, after the numbness was gone, I had pain. A lot of it was nerve pain and spasms – like really bad Charley horses or like your leg is both in a vice and being ripped apart.
“Pretty much a year, to the date, I had a relapse but this time in my torso. Again, I woke up feeling strange and couldn’t feel as I was scratching my stomach. Again it was on the right side – from my belly button wrapping to my spine. This time the numbness was present but in addition it felt like I had ants or something crawling all over me. I would scratch so much that I would be bleeding and not even notice.”
Kooistra-Redlick said that the relapse lasted for three months with no other occurrences until this past summer.
“While driving down from the lake I noticed the right side of my face was drooped – cheek, lips and everything,” she said.
“My family was concerned I was maybe having a stroke but I didn’t feel it was life threatening. When I went to the hospital they ran tests right away to determine that it was not, in fact, a stroke. But, the really bad numbness lasted a few weeks and then it slowly went away bit by bit over the next month.”
In addition to having the original lesions that were found on her spine, Kooistra-Redlick now also has them on her brain.
“The different lesions affect different areas,” she said. “I find the ones on my brain can really affect my speech, making me say an entirely different word than I intend to. I will also stutter or repeat myself.”
To help control the pain, the symptoms and to try to slow down the process of the disease, Kooistra-Redlick is on a strict regimen of medications.
“At the beginning, it started off with slow doses of medications and then they started to introduce more and more,” she said. “Throughout the years, it gradually increased from a couple pills throughout the day to now, where I take 47 pills a day. This is in addition to B12 injections every two weeks and injections three times a week with a drug to try to slow the progression of MS.
“My pills help me to function. If I forget to take them in the morning, even if I remember later, by afternoon, I feel sluggish. My leg also spasms really bad in the evening and this controls that.”
Frustrated with the amount of chemicals she was putting in her body, the damage that was being done to her systems and the mental toll it all was taking, Kooistra-Redlick started looking for alternatives.
“I did a lot of research to see what might help,” she said. “I knew I wouldn’t stop being able to stop taking my injections but I had hope that I could stop taking some of the others. I was sick of taking 47 pills a day and trying to find an alternative method.”
Kooistra-Redlick came across medical cannabis which is said to reduce nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy, improve appetite in people with HIV/AIDS, and reduce chronic pain and muscle spasms for people suffering diseases like she was. But, there was a catch.
“I was not looking for the psychedelic high,” she said. “I discussed it with health professionals and explained what I was looking for. I wanted to be able to reduce my use of pain medication and still be able to function normally – both at work and at home. There’s no way I would be able to function at my job if I was high as a kite.”
She found that medical cannabis can be administered using a variety of methods, just a few of which include liquid tinctures, vaporizing or smoking dried buds, edibles, taking capsules, using lozenges, dermal patches, or oral/dermal sprays.
“The stereotype is that you smoke a joint or you bake some brownies but there are so many more options,” said Kooistra-Redlick. “I was able to try some things, like a lotion, that contained the oil extracted.
“I put the lotion right on my leg if I feel it starting to act up. Within 20-30 minutes the first time, I thought I had found a miracle cream.”
Despite pending plans for legalization from the Canadian government, the use of cannabis and related products still carries a stigma in mainstream society.
“I was worried about what people would think,” she said. “People think that you are just looking for a high. But, I’m just sick of the pain and the chemicals I have to put in my body to control it.
“You have to take one pill to fix a symptom which in turn has messed up my thyroid. Now I have to take medication to deal with the thyroid which caused other issues. The problems and the medications just start to stack up.
“But, I have 100 percent support both at work and at home,” Kooistra-Redlick continued. “Everyone around me is absolutely amazing.
“I explained to my husband and my children that I was looking into this and was very clear on my reasons why. My son is 18, graduating this year, and my daughter is turning 16. I explained to them that just because I was looking into this, it didn’t give them the right to go and freely use – these medical products are a lot different than what is found on the street. It was good to have the conversation and be open in the home about it.”
The application process to obtain medical approval is currently a long and tedious one and Kooistra-Redlick is hoping that legalization will help people that suffer who are not wanting to jump through the hoops. Not only will it be easier to obtain after legalization but it will also make Kooistra-Redlick and others in chronic pain feel that much more comfortable in the use.
“Being able to go in and talk to someone locally who is knowledgeable about products would be amazing in finding ones that work best for my symptoms,” she said.
“I’m grateful that the Town has approved the possible sale locally as it adds just that much more convenience – not just for me but anyone who has chronic pain. It can help people in so many different ways.
“It has helped me mentally and emotionally,” Kooistra-Redlick concluded. “I got to the point where I was just done taking pills. Knowing that I cannot take as many and have something to fall back on, that is fast acting, is a peace of mind.”
While the date for legalization has not yet been set in stone, for people like Kooistra-Redlick, the anticipation for summer is about more than just warmer weather this year.