Medical cannabis helping Alberta MS patient

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December 8, 2015  By Special to Financial Post

Former high school teacher and anti-drug advocate Grant Cluff leans forward to light a much-needed marijuana joint.

It’s a fascinating sight.

Former high school teacher and anti-drug advocate Grant Cluff leans forward to light a much-needed marijuana joint. He inhales deeply. Breathing out a dense plume of smoke, he slumps against the backrest of his mobility scooter. The muscle pain and stiffness throughout his body immediately subsides.

A tense expression gives way to a look of utter relief. His eyes brighten up. He smiles. “Now I can relax,” he says. His herbal medicine – until recently, dismissed by society as merely a recreational drug for slackers – is already working.

A lifelong Calgary resident, Cluff, 68, proudly served his community for two decades as a social studies teacher. But his career was cut short in 1988 by the onset of multiple sclerosis – a painful, debilitating and incurable disease.

MS Patient Grant CluffFor 13 years, he was administered cocktails of up to a dozen kinds of pharmaceutical drugs. But they did him more harm than good, he says. “They weakened my muscles, making my condition deteriorate even faster, and to the point that I could no longer walk,” he explains. “Some medications even burned holes in my stomach, causing painful gastrointestinal bleeding.”

By 2001, he was at his wit’s end. So Cluff tried to commit suicide by drinking half a bottle of rum and choking down around 50 painkillers. He was revived at a local hospital. As a last resort, he finally followed a friend’s advice: he tried smoking a little marijuana for the first time. It was an instant godsend. Cluff became a convert. Within one week, he had cast aside all of his meds for good.

“The benefits were almost immediate, translating into far less muscle spasticity and less pain,” he says. “Now I don’t need any pharmaceutical drugs any more, mostly because the marijuana treats just about all of my ailments.”

Since then, he’s even lost about 50 pounds of excess weight and his mood and overall quality of life have improved dramatically. “These days, I can even do as many as 10 push-ups. That’s not bad,” he quips with a chuckle. As he heads off on his electric scooter to his local coffee shop, he adds, “All in all, I’m pretty happy.”

The benefits of medical marijuana for Cluff are obvious. This is why he and thousands of others with similarly debilitating diseases are given legal access to it.

But what about other Albertans with chronic health issues? Do they all have to be as seriously ill as Cluff to earn the right to use this herbal medicine? What about people whose quality of life is diminished by sleeplessness, anxiety, and depression? Opinion polls suggest they’re all equally deserving.

The medical community is gradually being won over, too. This profound paradigm shift comes in response to growing scientific evidence in support of marijuana’s healing powers. In fact, this once-demonized plant is proving to be a panacea for a broad diversity of medical conditions.

Medical marijuana may even help alleviate an emerging health-care crisis, namely the over-prescription of powerful painkillers and anti-depressants. Not only do many of these drugs come with dangerous and/or debilitating side effects, they can be dangerously addictive, too. So doctors and patients alike are looking to safer drug substitutes, such as cannabis.

All of this helps explain why marijuana sales are moving out of the shadows of back alleys and into the mainstream. It’s no longer a seedy, secretive, and fragmented industry. Instead, it has such new-found respectability that it’s even well-represented in Canada’s highly-regulated capital markets.

An example of this quantum business evolution can be found with Aurora Cannabis – a publicly listed company that trades on the CSE exchange under the symbol ACB. By becoming Alberta’s first-ever provider of pharmaceutical-grade cannabis for patients in need, Aurora just made history. More specifically, Health Canada has just granted Aurora a sales licence. This follows extensive laboratory testing of Aurora’s latest harvest for quality control by an independent, licensed third party.

To achieve this validation, the company has demonstrated that it’s proficient in standardizing each of its various strains of medical marijuana. In other words, every variety is identical from plant to plant in terms of composition, potency and medical efficacy.

This preoccupation with quality control is critical to Aurora’s future success. That’s because physicians are professionally obliged to seek out licensed growers who can guarantee a very safe and effective product. With this in mind, Aurora aims to become the ‘go to’ supplier for most Albertans.

Now Aurora isn’t quite what some readers might expect. It’s not run by swaggering, tattoo-covered ‘entrepreneurs’ with questionable backgrounds and suitcases full of cash. Instead, its founders are very successful, buttoned-down Albertan businesspeople. And they have ambitious goals. Over time, Aurora intends to cultivate as many as 50,000 plants at any one time, involving enough varieties – up to a dozen – to treat a wide spectrum of ailments. They include cancer, heart disease, spinal cord injuries, autoimmune disorders, Parkinson’s disease, PTSD and even migraines.

Meanwhile, government-approved patients all across Alberta can now order exactly what they need. In so doing, they’ll be validating the birth of a new-age, high tech agricultural industry.

By way of a little perspective, it’s worth discussing the federal government’s decision in 2013 to clean up Canada’s problematic cannabis growing cottage industry. The new system is aimed at overriding a 2001 Supreme Court ruling that allows certain medical patients to grow their own cannabis, or to instead use a designated small-scale grower.

However, the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana under this outdated system has been poorly regulated since its inception. And much of the cannabis has found its way on to the black market, thereby lining the pockets of organized crime.

Another longstanding problem is that it’s commonly grown in mouldy, unsanitary and poorly-ventilated warehouses or household basements. This can expose patients with compromised immune systems to potentially dangerous bacterial pathogens. Furthermore, the overuse of toxic pesticides is very prevalent.

But that’s all changing. Thanks to the feds’ industry shake-up, patients are finally gaining access to medical marijuana from the likes of Aurora – which carefully cultivates its plants in a sanitized, laboratory-like environment under the government’s watchful eye.

Yet the barriers to entry to this fast-growing, science-driven industry are high. Only well-managed corporations with millions of dollars of startup capital are able to meet the government’s stringent new growing requirements. Since the fall of 2013, only 22 of them have earned coveted growing/sales licences, whereas hundreds of other operators have been turned down.

Among the few government-endorsed market entrants is Aurora, which benefits from being one of the only purpose-built growing facilities in the world. It is located on rural land near the village of Cremona, 90 kilometres north of Calgary.

The company’s expansive 55,200-square-foot facility (the size of a football field) cost upwards of $11 million to construct. Its white-washed interior looks much like a medical laboratory.

Large, brightly-lit rooms pulsate with fans, filters, 1,000-watt lights, HVAC ventilation, irrigation systems and all sorts of other apparatus to ensure optimal growing conditions.

Ironically, since there are no tell-tale smells emanating from the building, the only real hint of what goes on inside comes from all the government-mandated security measures, all of which ensure that no one can sneak anything out and no one can break in either. Hence, the perimeter has razor-wire-topped fences as well as plenty of motion and infrared sensors. There are also 174 security cameras throughout the facility that operate 24 hours a day.

Nothing is left to chance. After all, there’s a lot at stake. It’s no less than the opportunity to become a power player in an emerging multi-billion dollar global industry. This is according to Aurora’s personable and down-to-earth CEO, Terry Booth.

“Currently, Aurora’s facility is capable of growing 5,400 kilograms per annum, which could translate into revenues of up to $70 million. These projected revenues would include extractions, such as cannabis oils. All told, we’re expecting very healthy profit margins.”

Beyond the domestic market, Booth relishes the prospect of Aurora becoming a legal exporter to an ever-growing list of progressive-minded countries. Most of them endorse pharmaceutical-grade cannabis for medical needs but don’t produce their own.

Yet these lucrative medicinal markets merely represent the tip of the iceberg. Once cannabis becomes licensed for recreational use in Canada, production and distribution are expected to be strictly regulated in a similar manner to alcohol. Consequently, Booth estimates that up to eight million Canadians will eventually become consumers. Whatever the figure may be, analysts agree that the recreational market would eclipse the medical marijuana sector.

For now, Booth is content to savour the sense of being part of history: His company can now sell ‘locally-grown’, pharmaceutical-grade medical marijuana to fellow Albertans. And they include people like Cluff. He’s forever thankful for the day that he shed his prejudices against what has become his herbal saviour.

“When I was a school teacher, I was anti-drugs and felt that marijuana has no value to society. Now nobody knows better than me that this couldn’t be further from the truth.”

 

This story was produced by Postmedia Works on behalf of Capital Markets Media for commercial purposes. Postmedia’s editorial departments had no involvement in the creation of this content.

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