Jonathan Zaid, a 23-year-old university student and executive director of the group Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana (CFAMM), is speaking out about his difficult but ultimately successful journey to get medical marijuana covered by his insurance plan.
When Zaid was 14, he went from being "a really good, active student who played sports and did everything that a normal teenager would do" to being trapped at home by the hellish constellation of symptoms that comprise New Daily Persistent Headache, a rare disorder.
"I was in constant, unrelenting pain," says Zaid. "The migraines are the most debilitating feature of my condition. You can't do anything. I went to school with just me and a teacher, because I couldn't deal with any noise. I couldn't go to movies or do anything with friends."
Over the next few years, Zaid says, he tried myriad therapies including 48 different prescription drugs, Botox, chiropractic, acupuncture, and nerve blocks. He attended a two-week inpatient program with one of the top headache experts in the world - all to no avail.
"There was no stone unturned," says the University of Waterloo student, "and I still had no quality of life."
Zaid explores marijuana as a treatment option
None of this changed until someone gave Zaid some cannabis to try to see if it would ease his symptoms.
"It gave me some relief," says Zaid. But when he approached his doctors about medical marijuana, he says, "they were so uneducated and unaware of the medical benefits that they said there was no research, and I was too young and I couldn't be on that kind of thing."
Zaid persisted, and in April 2015 was able to get a doctor's authorization to start purchasing medical cannabis from licensed producers; however, he soon "realized the cost was starting to add up," he says. That realization kicked off a second battle: to get medical cannabis covered by his health plan administered by the student union at the University of Waterloo.
"When I approached them," he says, "they said cannabis didn't have a Drug Identification Number, so it wasn't an approved drug and it wasn't eligible under the health plan."
The thing was, Zaid had been approved for a different drug without such a number before, "so I knew that they could do that, and they were just interpreting the plan."
His insurance company agrees to cover his cannabis medication
After eight months and extensive discussions, his insurance provider Sun Life realized cannabis was a necessary part of his treatment. "They came to the conclusion that it supports my academics and I'm using it as a medicine," he says.
While he was the first student to succeed in getting medical cannabis covered under the plan, he's subsequently heard that his case set a precedent for others to receive coverage.
. "It's a medicine and it should be treated like any other medicine," Zaid says. "Health insurance plans are supposed to cover things that make you feel better, and help you get back to work or school."
Zaid understands that cannabis won't completely eliminate his health issues, but it's significantly improved his quality of life.
"It's not a miracle drug, I still have to use other medications," he says. "I've never had a headache-free moment since [being diagnosed]. I still have difficulty but cannabis has improved my overall life significantly. And I know how many patients are having to choose between their medicine and basic life necessities, putting medication on their credit card, and are really struggling."
Zaid is now an advocate for other patients
He has become an advocate for other medical marijuana patients who can't plead their case in the way he did. He also appreciates the strong support of his student union as he pushed to get coverage - support he's now looking to extend to other patients.
"It took a huge amount of persistence and I was very fortunate to have people around me to help me through that," he says. "Patients are dealing with their illness, and they don't have a the capacity to push for coverage - even coverage they may be eligible to receive."
"We're working with a limited number of their patients to help them, from start to finish, to get coverage added on their private, preexisting health insurance plans," he says. "We're looking at which plans will set a precedent."