[This article originally appeared in Cannabis Health Journal in May 2005]
The medical marijuana movement is rife with examples of injustice, patient persecution, and indifference on the part of government and society in general. The story of Marylynne Townshend is, unfortunately, no exception.
In December of 1994, Townshend—then 30 years old—suffered her first grand mal seizure, forever changing her life and undeniably informing her and her family that she was now officially an epileptic. “You don’t know what it’s like to be blind until you’re blind,” Townshend said in a phone interview from her home. “I got epilepsy and wondered why people didn’t understand me.”
Negative Side Effects
In the tradition of western medicine, her diagnosis was followed by tests and treatment regimes prescribed by doctors—along with a barrage of pharmaceutical drugs. Drugs such as Dilantin and Tegretol carried severe side effects, most notably nausea and lost appetite.
These negative side effects resulted in the further deterioration of Townshend’s health. In only three months, her weight decreased from 130 to 65 pounds. The severe nausea caused by the synthetic drugs that were supposed to increase her quality of life by preventing her seizures was slowly starving her body of nutrition. Depression and double vision were among other side effects. Townshend was relegated to spending most of her time on the living room couch, often continually sick for days at a time.
“Everything appeared to move up and down, like TV credits. I typically saw three things at a time,” she said. “The only way I could see clearly was by closing one eye. So for about two years I went around with one eye closed,” she laughed.
Adding insult to injury, the seizures never abated. The drug treatments that carried such significant negative side effects also had relatively little efficacy, leaving Townshend depressed with hopelessness and pain.
Eight months after her first seizure, one of Townshend’s friends suggested she try cannabis as an alternative treatment. Her husband Stuart dipped into the black market and purchased a quarter ounce of an unknown strain. After two to three joints per day for about two days, Townshend’s appetite returned.
“I believe marijuana is a panacea,” she said. “It gave me my life back. I can’t describe how miserable I was on the pharmaceutical drugs alone.” Townshend’s has since been a regular medical marijuana user, regaining her weight and significantly decreasing her dependence on pharmaceutical drugs. She has also suffered far fewer seizures than when she was taking pharma drugs alone.
Despite the stigma, Townshend admitted to her doctor that she was taking cannabis to treat her condition. He consulted medical references that categorized marijuana as a muscle relaxant and anti-spasmodic. Noting that this was the perfect treatment for epilepsy, he endorsed her choice of medication, even requesting updates regarding its efficacy.
Townshend requires, on average, 35 grams (about 1.2 ounces) of cannabis per week. This amount allows her to smoke as she needs and use some for baking or tea (although it’s extremely rare that she has enough pot on hand for such non-smoking luxuries).
The realities of black market economies soon impacted the Townshend family budget. Townshend’s daily cannabis consumption level cost the family, on average, a thousand dollars per month. Stuart was forced to begin working two jobs to cover the expense. Despite this effort, the financial burden of paying for black market medicine ultimately resulted in bankruptcy for her family.
Section 56 Exemption
In 2000, Townshend petitioned for and was eventually granted a Health Canada Section 56 exemption, including a Growing License. “When I saw that Terry Parker was making headway with epilepsy and that he got an exemption, I pursued one for myself,” she said. “I didn’t want to do anything illegal and jeopardize my daughter’s life. I had to make it legal, or else what would my daughter learn?”
Health Canada refused Townshend first two petitions. “With two doctor’s notes, they still refused me,” she said. “They claimed my doctors didn’t quite understand marijuana. My doctor had simply said that he was unaware of any conclusive studies proving its efficacy, but that he was willing to back me.” Despite her qualifications for Health Canada’s medical marijuana program, the Great White North’s federal health care system sat on Townshend’s request, forcing her to continue purchasing from the black market and prolonging her uncertainty and financial hardship.
Townshend became increasingly frustrated. “So I contacted a reporter at the Toronto Sun,” she said with a tone of revenge. “They ran a story and I got my exemption the day after the article appeared! So you have to make noise. Anyone wanting an exemption has to make noise! Go to the press. They’re powerful.”
The appearance of the Toronto Sun article, however, wasn’t completely positive. While Townshend gained her exemption, she didn’t anticipate the repercussions of friends, family, and neighbors learning of her dependency on cannabis. Townshend’s brother (a school teacher) and his wife strongly disapproved of her use of marijuana—even medicinally. As a result, they estranged themselves from her. “I lost a brother because his wife doesn’t approve of pot,” said Townshend. “I still feel like a criminal because of the stigma.”
But epilepsy, financial hardship, social stigma, and dependency on the black market proved to be relatively minor problems compared to what came next for the Townshend family. On May 14, 2003, at about 3:30 a.m.—just three days prior to their second home harvest—four men donning balaclavas and weapons broke into the Townshend home. The thieves’ goal was the capture of the family’s literally valuable-as-gold—but fully legal—medical marijuana plants.
One of the thieves chased Stuart across the street, swinging at him with a serrated butcher knife. When Stuart turned to face the criminal, he fled. Meanwhile, a second intruder confronted the Townshend’s then 18-year-old daughter Andrea, pointing a 9 mm pistol in her face. A third thief threatened Townshend with another 9 mm.
Her parents, who were living on the second floor of their house to assist with her illness, were also threatened with guns pointed in their faces.
As Townshend and her husband ran into the street, screaming for help and trying to catch the men, the criminals sped away in a van. But not before one of them stopped and slugged her in the mouth as her mother helplessly looked on. The injury resulted in the loss of several teeth and three root canals.
Stuart later discovered that the thieves left behind a duffel bag containing razor blades, duct tape, and garbage bags. “You can only imagine what they were going to use that stuff for, eh?,” he said during a phone interview.
“I think the police suspected us as much as the intruders,” Stuart said. He described how he was viewed warily by the local police, as if “we had been the perpetrators instead of the victims.” He also felt pressured to reveal fellow growers as the Mississauga police probed him for information unrelated to the effort to catch the criminals responsible for the burglary.
Not satisfied with the lackadaisical response of the police, Stuart began his own research. He learned that, in 2001, Health Canada experienced its own break-in, suffering the theft of several exemptee records. This was followed by a small rash of home invasions and medical garden thefts throughout Canada. Unfortunately, the Townshend family victimization was not the first incident of an exemptee medical garden theft.
The negative repercussions of the invasion have been numerous. Townshend was traumatized to the point of developing agoraphobia (the fear of open or public places). She has left her home only half a dozen times in the two years since the invasion. “I’m afraid to go out, but I’m tired of staying here. It drives me nuts,” she said.
Daughter Andrea suffers from acute anxiety and carries her mace in-hand when entering the home. Stuart, who once hoped that legally growing his family’s own cannabis could wean them from the dangers and expense of the black market, works 80 hours per week to afford his wife’s medicine. To escape the trauma of the event, Townshend parents have moved to northern Ontario, several hours away. “I feel as if I’ve lost half my family just because marijuana helps my epilepsy more than anything else,” she said.
The Townshend home invasion clearly illustrates the destructive effects of prohibition-induced black markets for cannabis. As a fully legal Health Canada exemptee with a Growing License, Townshend broke no laws and followed all Health Canada regulations regarding their medical garden.
The sad reality that victimizations of this type could be prevented by cannabis legalization is difficult to ignore. The fact that many who suffer from debilitating and terminal diseases are further persecuted by criminally controlled black markets and marginalized by government and police is an embarrassment to all of society, prohibitionists and activists alike.