Editors note – a version of this piece appeared in NOW magazine.
With the announcement that Justin Trudeau would be supporting the legalization of marijuana 4,000 sick, broken and frustrated Canadians have started to breathe a sigh of relief.
The patients and their physician, Dr. Rob Kamermans, have been lost in a legal limbo that has seen criminal charges laid against the physician while his patients have lost their access to a medication that eased symptoms and increased quality of life.
The patients and their doctor consider themselves casualties of the Canadian war on drugs and Trudeau’s announcement brings back hope to those looking for legal access to a medication they say works.
Dr. Rob Kamermans and his wife Mary, a registered nurse, have been working with medical marijuana since 2009 when Dr. Kamermans was asked to sign a B1 form for a patient in his rural Ontario practice. Because the patient fit the Health Canada criteria and because Dr. Kamermans believed marijuana to be a better option than opioids, he signed the forms.
The forms are only support of the application; the final decision is up to Health Canada.
The next year a few more forms were signed. The doctor asked patients to stay quiet about it.
Dr. Kamermans operates a small clinic in Coe Hill, Ontario, 90 minutes north of Peterborough. He also worked as many shifts as possible in rural emergency rooms as part of his work for Health Force Ontario. The clinic cost a lot to run and Dr. Kamermans’ main source of income was from ER shifts.
But then thanks to some great online reviews from patients and thanks to the connectedness of the Canadian medical marijuana community, the doctor’s name and his belief in supporting access to the medication went viral.
By the end of 2011 the doctor had signed 4,000 patients. He signed them in his small clinic in Coe Hill and when people had difficulty travelling he ran mobile clinics across the GTA. Patients who visited Coe Hill paid $100 for the paperwork and in the mobile clinics the charge was $250. The fees were approved by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.
Many of his patients report having been turned down by their own family physicians and those who were turned down say it was because the doctors still viewed marijuana as illegal. Health Canada’s program did not change their minds. Those who eventually sought out Dr. Kamermans did so because they did not want to buy drugs illegally.
And as patients gained access to a drug that the police still consider illegal, the doctor became the target of a massive sting. Health Canada had refused to part with the names of medical marijuana users and the OPP and the RCMP were not willing to back down.
On Jan. 26, 2012 the doctor was getting ready for a busy clinic day in Coe Hill when 20 police officers arrived with a search warrant.
The warrant suggested there were drugs on the premises and that Dr. Kamermans had been involved in trafficking. The doctor was not arrested but he was cuffed. The OPP said it was for their protection.
“They were 20 young men with guns,” Kamermans said quietly. “I am an old man.”
Dr. Kamermans, 67, ties his long grey hair back in a ponytail and he often works in jeans and sneakers. His eyes are blue and bright and he laughs easily. But on the day of the raid he was not laughing. He was brought outside his clinic and photographed in restraints. He was called a drug dealer by the officers and while he was taken away for questioning more than 4,000 patient charts were removed.
The charts have never been returned.
And that’s totally legal, according to Manuela Di Re, associate director of legal services for the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s office of Ontario. With a criminal investigation, patient files can become the property of the police. A disturbing fact for the many medical marijuana patients who are now known to the OPP and RCMP.
No charges were laid until six-months after the raid that saw the clinic and the doctor’s farm trashed by the police. The doctor was working in the emergency room of a tiny rural hospital in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, tending to a child, when the cops came in and cuffed him. Taking the doctor away mid-shift left an entire community without a functioning ER.
“The OPP could have asked me to come to the station with my lawyer,” Dr. Kamermans said. “This was all part of the police working very hard to make us look bad.”
Dr. Kamermans was charged with Fraud (3 counts), Utter Forged Documents (5 counts), Possession of property obtained by crime and laundering proceeds of crime. His wife Mary Kamermans, a registered nurse, has the same charges but with one less count for Utter Forged Documents.
Dr. Kamermans says he still doesn’t understand the charges. He’s also had a tough time working with his patients since all their charts were seized.
“This is both disappointing and ridiculous,” Dr. Kamermans said. “The people who came to us did not want to go to the black market. This program was supposed to make the black market smaller and that’s a good thing right?”
Dr. Kamermans stopped signing B1 forms after the raid and now refers his patients in need of renewals to other doctors who are taking a risk to sign. The new doctors charge between $400 – $600 for renewals. The Health Canada program has also been going through significant changes. All of this adding more barriers for those who are most in need.
But more and more physicians, recognizing the benefits of this medication, are signing the forms.
At the end of Jan. 2012 when Dr. Kamermans stopped signing the B1 forms there were 13,781 Canadians authorized to possess dried marijuana. By the end of Dec. 2012 the number had grown to 28,115.
Since the arrest last August Dr. Kamermans has been trying to keep his life together. He still thinks medical marijuana is an excellent option for some patients and he hopes that Justin Trudeau will be successful in his quest. The legalization of marijuana would let adults grow and possess a medication that makes life manageable for some of the most sick, injured and broken patients he has ever cared for.
Dr. Kamermans and his wife Mary will be in criminal court in October. The OPP have not responded to requests for information